Mental health: students deserve more

by | Dec 6, 2013 | Editorial, Opinion

A video showing a student attempting suicide on the popular online discussion board has sent shockwaves worldwide, bringing forth the issue of student mental health in Canada.
The video showed a 20-year-old University of Guelph student trying to kill himself by swallowing an assortment of pills and vodka. He then set fire to his dorm room as the video’s 200 viewers gawked and even suggested ways to quicken the process.

“This is it. Tonight I will be ending my own life. I’ve been spending the last hour making the preparations and I’m ready to go through with it. I thought I would finally give back to the community in the best way possible: I am willing to an hero(sic) on cam for you all,” the student told his viewers under the pseudonym Stephen. ‘An hero’ is a slang term on 4chan for committing suicide.

Stephen was rescued by firefighters after other students took notice of the fire. He survived the suicide attempt, but the situation has left the University of Guelph in a state of disbelief.

The university’s vice president of student affairs, Brenda Whiteside, said she was left wondering what the school did wrong. The school has asked people not to share the video and has offered counselling to students in residence, as well as links to hotlines and websites where students can seek mental help.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that simply offering these services to students isn’t enough. Schools need to start taking a more active role in students’ mental health. Student mental health concerns have always existed and support is available for their needs, but situations like Stephen’s remind us that the problem hasn’t gone away, and we should be concerned.

A study released by Canadian Organization of University and College Health last summer focused on mental health concerns and just how prevalent they are amongst Canada’s post-secondary students. Over 30,000 students were surveyed and close to 90 per cent said they were overwhelmed, while more than 50 per cent said they felt hopeless and 63 per cent felt lonely.
The report also looked into student suicides, with 9.5 per cent of students saying they had seriously considered taking their own lives in the past year, while 1.3 per cent had actually attempted suicide.

Discussing the survey, Dr. Su-Ting Teo, director of student health and wellness at Ryerson University, told the Globe and Mail that the public often overlooks student mental health.
“There is the perception still I think in the public that students have it easy,” she said.

But, there’s more to it than the stresses of exams.

“Some of it is health, some of it is relationships, some of it is academics and finances, but what was surprising is the large number of students (55 per cent) who are actually juggling three or more of those issues at the same time,” said Teo.

So, what should Canadian universities and colleges do? The University of British Columbia’s position to educate students about mental illness is the answer. Their work reaches beyond just mental health week programming, but year-round support based in educating students about what mental health is and isn’t.

“A central premise of our mental awareness campaign is changing the perceptions towards mental health and promoting dialogue,” mental health wellness officer at University of British Columbia, Patty Hambler, told the Ubyssey, the school’s student newspaper.

After the news of Stephen’s video broke, suggestions such as observing students’ mental health at an individual level were brought forward. Monitoring each and every student isn’t plausible for an institution the size of UBC or Guelph or even Humber College, but education is a realistic first step.

Dialogue and education are important because they builds the foundation for students to recognize their own issues and seek help if they need it. It also gives others the chance to notice and intervene in a schoolmate’s situation.

“Mental health is only possible when you have the support of the broader community in place,” Hambler said. “[Every] individual has responsibility for their own mental health and as a community we have a shared responsibility of accountability and support.”

The Guelph case isn’t the first one involving online suicide attempts and it might not be the last, but if schools are more active in mental health education beyond slated mental health awareness weeks, perhaps students won’t feel like they have to take matters into their own hands.