Content warning: discussions of suicide

Walking back into Pine Ridge Secondary School felt amazing. It was reading week at the University of Toronto, and after finishing our first semester, William and I were returning to visit some of our favourite teachers from high school. They seemed thrilled to see us again; they asked us how university was going and gave us advice for the future.

I recall one of our teachers, a former U of T student, telling us how hard the winter season was for him during university. “There’s just something about that place,” he said. Most U of T students would agree with this sentiment: campus can be a dark place in the winter, filled with exhausted students writing essays and studying for exams. He told us that school was no easy feat; he told us to always keep our mental health in check. We left that day feeling hopeful — we were encompassed by warmth and love from our old educators.

One week later, I would return to Pine Ridge to see my teachers again, but this time it was under different circumstances. William had died the night before.

I remember the night I found out. I remember every detail. I remember the call, the disbelief that came with it, and the crying that followed. How could this happen? I had just lost one of my best friends.

Old friends

I met William in grade nine in my homeroom math class. To this day, I still don’t understand how we became friends. I was a short kid with an awkward personality and he was a good-looking athlete whom girls swooned over.

We seemed like opposites, but we clicked instantly. We played football and rugby together; he was the captain of our team, and I was the bench-warmer who cheered him on. He brought out the best in me, gave me the confidence to run for student council, and volunteered to run my campaign. We were each others’ cheerleaders, supporting each other in everything we did.

When I received my acceptance letter to U of T, William was the first person I called. As it turned out, he had been accepted too and was going to play for the Varsity Blues rugby team. I couldn’t have been happier — I was going to university with one of my closest friends.

But life has a weird way of operating. When I first learned that William had died, I couldn’t immediately process that he was gone. I couldn’t believe it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but William had been suffering from bipolar disorder. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), bipolar disorder — or manic-depressive illness, as it used to be called — is a medical condition that causes people to develop extreme mood swings. “These swings affect how people think, behave and function,” CAMH tells us.

I couldn’t tell something was wrong. Sure, there were days William was moody and frustrated, but I never recognized it to be a problem. Besides, William could get through anything.

At the beginning of our first year at U of T, William started using the mental health services on campus. But these services appeared inadequate, strapped by low funding and scarce staff. I fear for other students on this campus who are going through similar struggles. How can we help students dealing with worsening mental health issues if we don’t have the sufficient resources on campus to help them?

Calls for better mental health resources have been made by student leaders. Just this past month, the administration proposed a new mental health policy that would allow ‘high risk’ students to be taken out of the classroom. However, no mental health officials would have to be officially consulted in the process. Instead, the power would be left to the Vice-Provost Students.

This is a humiliating situation to put any student through. U of T’s administration needs to find a balance between respecting students’ dignity and doing what is best for them. More funding is needed, and mental health services must be more accessible to students from all backgrounds.

Students often suffer in silence. And, in my experience, this is particularly apparent in men.

A silent epidemic

In a report written on male suicide, Dr. Dan Bilsker and Dr. Jennifer White state that “suicide in men has been described as a ‘silent epidemic’: epidemic because of its high incidence and substantial contribution to men’s mortality, and silent because of a lack of public awareness, a paucity of explanatory research, and the reluctance of men to seek help for suicide-related concerns.”

The report continued noting that “suicide is the second leading cause of potential years of life lost [PYLL] by men compared with women, reflecting both men’s higher rate of suicide and the relatively young age at which many suicide deaths occur. In Canada, suicide accounts for about 10% of all PYLL for men.”

Suicide often occurs during formative years, like during university. These influential years can become incredibly difficult, and not all of us have the resources to seek help.

Additionally, it is important that mental and physical health conversations acknowledge intersections of gender, class, race, disability, and sexual orientation in people’s lives. Not all of us are given the privileges in life to seek help. Not all of us have the same support system. Not all us have a family that supports who we are.

Suicide rates fluctuate based on these intersections; because of this, it is difficult to accurately and deeply understand the issue. A comprehensive mental health plan needs to consider multiple intersections and experiences in life. Only once this happens can we mitigate the problem.

But how do we help? How can we help reverse the silent epidemic?

The significance of Movember

Campaigns like Movember seek to fundraise and raise awareness around issues of men’s health. Movember began in Australia in 2003. The idea was simple: find 30 men who are willing to grow out their moustaches for the entirety of November. From humble beginnings, the movement has since spread across the world.

The Movember Foundation of Canada focuses on three main issues affecting men’s health: prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and suicide prevention. They do this through funding organizations and programs that are invested in these issues. Last year, the foundation raised $15.5 million for men’s health programs. They funded projects like the Canadian Men’s Health & Wellbeing Innovation Challenge, which looks to “support the implementation of outside the box proof of concept ideas that disrupt long held assumptions/myths about men and their health.” Currently, the Movember movement has raised over $800 million and has over five million participants.

People have debated viral campaigns like Movember, questioning if the campaign overtakes the actual issue. For example, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge — which raised money for people suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — was described as ‘slacktivism’ and was thought to have had little impact on the people it was supposed to help. However, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $100 million USD for ALS patients. This funded a number of research projects, one of which identified a gene associated with the disease, opening a door for treatment possibilities.

Arguably, this sentiment may have truth to it, but the proof is in the pudding: Movember has raised an incredible amount of money by simply growing out moustaches.

Societal norms play into a hyper-masculine ideal where men are often quiet about what’s affecting their mental health. There is a stigma behind this; many men don’t seek help for fear of getting ridiculed by their peers. Movember seeks to move past the stigma. Everyone deserves love, support, and to feel like they belong.

I grow my moustache for William. I want to do everything in my power to make sure other men don’t have to suffer in silence.

What I’ve learned

I think about William every day. I don’t know where I would be without him. I owe him so much, and I don’t think I have made it up to him. I still ask myself everyday if I could have done something. Could I have said something? Would it have helped? I had nightmares after he died; I would wake up sweating profusely. I hated myself. I blamed myself. I still do.

Losing a friend, a mentor, and someone I considered family was hard. It was the loneliest I had ever felt. It was the worst year of my life. I couldn’t turn to anyone. Sometimes I would spend the whole day scrolling through his social media feeds reminiscing about the times we had. A part of me went missing when William passed away, and I didn’t know how to find it again.

I slipped into a depressive state of my own. University felt impossible to go through, and every time I stepped on campus I instinctively thought of the day I learned of his death.

But in times of darkness, I found light. Instead of focusing on the bad, I focused on the good that William did. I needed to exemplify the traits that I admired in him.

So I decided to get involved in my community again. I stepped up to the plate like he would have wanted me to. Now, I want to do him proud.

Remember to take care of yourself this exam season. If you’re struggling, talk to the ones you love about your mental health. You are never alone, and going through everything by yourself only makes it harder. Seek help and fight for more accessible mental health services for students on campus. This epidemic is tragic, and we need to stick together to fight back.

Conversations need to happen about men’s mental health. We need to challenge our concept of masculinity because it is literally a life-or-death situation. Men shouldn’t feel timid about speaking on issues that affect them. Grow a moustache, wear it with pride, and know that people all around the world are behind you and are benefitting from it.

It’s been more than two years since William’s passing. He meant so much to me and the people around him that I didn’t realize how much of an impact he had until the day of his funeral. That day, I witnessed people from every part of his life show up. Everyone was just as broken as I was. When the ceremony ended, we performed our high-school rugby chant, “The Babaloo,” outside of the church for the first time without our fallen friend. We sung so loud that those in heaven could hear us — I hope he did too.

I never got the chance to tell him I loved him. So just know: I love you brother. I miss you friend. I’ll see you one day.