In September 2016, Robert Chu, a McMaster medical school graduate, took his own life after being rejected from residency programs two years in a row. Before his death, Chu sent a letter to politicians, universities, and news sources criticizing the medical residency matching system in Canada. Last week, Toronto Star reporter Allan Woods wrote about Chu, choosing to focus on the economic losses incurred by provincial governments when medical school graduates do not match to a residency program.
Woods’ economic perspective on a 25-year-old’s suicide utterly omits our collective failure as a society to address the lack of adequate mental health services for all, including students and professionals. Nor does it address society’s stigmatization of mental illness and suicide, which often prevents individuals from seeking help when they need it most.
While Chu’s despair was in large part due to Canada’s outdated residency matching system, it is not the issue that requires our immediate attention. The discussion surrounding the issue of mental illness should not be overshadowed by talk of economic loss; “fiscal math” — a phrase used by Dr. Franklin Warsh in a subsequent Toronto Star article about Chu — has no place here.
In that same article, Warsh writes that counselling is a “band-aid” solution that fails to address the “underlying problem” of students’ post-graduate struggles. But perceiving Chu’s suicide as being solely the result of career troubles is narrow-sighted and irresponsible. It ignores the reality of certain mental illnesses that tend to stick with people regardless of career hurdles. What Warsh refers to as a “band-aid” can really be crucial to the well-being of students with mental illness.
Indeed, scientific studies indicate that counselling can be beneficial for individuals dealing with depression and other mental illnesses, and can be as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy.
It is therefore troubling that providing individuals with counselling services is not a top priority. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians who believe they need mental health care report that counselling is the least likely of their needs to be met. Individuals who experience higher distress are more likely to have unmet or partially met needs.
Chu’s suicide was not the suicide of just a medical school graduate — it was the death of a young person, a son, a student, and a future doctor.
It was also a death that, apparently, no one saw coming. Chu’s family is said to have not seen signs of depression, withdrawal, or a cry for help before their son’s suicide; perhaps none of his colleagues and friends noticed either.
These details tell us that addressing the stigmatization of mental illness should also take priority. Most individuals in the Statistics Canada survey reported that they did not seek counselling because of personal circumstances, a preference to self-manage the problem, or both. How many of these individuals feared the social repercussions of seeking help? Concerns about confidentiality and the information preserved on personal records can also contribute to an individual’s reluctance to reach out, only aggravating their isolation and the likelihood that their condition will worsen.
Statistics Canada reports suicide as one of the leading causes of death among Canadians of all ages, and over 90 per cent of people who commit suicide have a mental illness or addictive disorder. In the spirit of preventing another tragedy, it is time to give mental health the attention it deserves.
Fortunately, making changes that promote mental health on university campuses is an attainable goal. The 2014 Report of the Provostial Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health recommended that a systems approach be adopted at the University of Toronto. Such a system would go beyond mental health services and engage the entire university, creating more protective measures and promoting mental wellness within the broader learning environment, partly by improving the relationship and communication between students and faculty.
Yet, at the same time, U of T’s existing accessibility and accommodation services cannot be fully effectual until discussions surrounding mental illness changes. Discussions surrounding experiences like that of Chu’s should focus on the inadequate level of service available to Canadians with mental illness and stigma, rather than discussing the economic impact of these issues. The self-inflicted death of a human being should never be reported as a wasted dollar.
Naomi Stuleanu is an incoming fourth-year student at Victoria College studying Criminology and Psychology.
Tags: Mental health