Content warning: discussion of suicide.
On Sunday, March 17, a student died by suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Below, two students join other contributors and discuss the need for mental health reform at U of T.
The university’s minimizing attitude sends a dangerous message
“Due to the sudden closure of the Bahen Centre, your ARC 367 class from 12pm to 2pm will be moved.” This is the message I received from my registrar’s office on the morning of March 18.
Yellow tape surrounded the entrance to the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, with a notice of the building’s closure and a list of class relocations. There were no flowers, no university representatives, and no acknowledgement that one of my fellow students had died. Even more alarmingly, there was not a single announcement offering support to those affected by this specific event or having suicidal thoughts.
It was business as usual at U of T after a student died by suicide on campus — the third this year and the second in the Bahen Centre. While these are disturbing statistics about real human lives, the university’s reaction to a suicide on campus still bore more resemblance to its response to a severe weather alert than to news that someone had ended their life. Were it not for a Varsity article on my morning newsfeed, I would have gone about my day not knowing about the tragic passing of a fellow student.
While the concerns that the acknowledgement of suicide might trigger other vulnerable individuals are valid, the fact that people are dying on our campus is a reality that we cannot and must not ignore. We must acknowledge the severity of students’ mental illnesses — free from any taboo or shame. While this does not mean insensitively communicating unnecessary details about a suicide, a new, more comprehensive protocol for dealing with suicide can serve to generate awareness about an urgent matter in a respectful and considerate way.
As it stands, the university’s way of dealing with these incidents not only lacks any sympathy or compassion, but it also attempts to sweep the matter under the rug. It makes the return to ‘normal’ feel forced, rushed, and severely artificial.
Some public institutions use more empathetic methods to acknowledge suicide in the public realm. For instance, since 2017, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has transitioned from automatic code-worded messages to personal announcements acknowledging that someone has died by suicide. Similarly, former TTC spokesperson, Brad Ross, favours a more humane and truthful approach to announcing a suicide on the tracks.
Some might ask if this is appropriate or necessary at all in our university context. After all, many students lead stressful lives and could go along with their day undisrupted by news of a suicide. But what message does this reaction send to students currently experiencing suicidal thoughts?
Indeed, while the university and campus police try to reduce the reality of the incident — or outright ignore it, in the case of the announcement from my registrar — many students will still be inevitably aware of what happened. It is very well possible that a severely distressed student could interpret this as their university and fellow students not caring if they end their life. It could send the message that suicide is a shameful, taboo topic that is unworthy of acknowledgment or discussion.
We can try to avoid and ignore suicide. But that won’t change the fact that it has happened and might happen again on our campus. As such, a shift in how our university reacts to a student taking their own life is not only important, but also desperately needed.
Felipe Coral is a fourth-year Architectural Studies student at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.
Suicide does not discriminate
Our community is in mourning. But visitors to U of T, outside of the media attention and protest, would hardly be able to tell. After another suicide — the second within a year in the Bahen Centre — things go on, business as usual. Now, at the start of spring, students are stuck processing this loss, demanding answers, and seeking support.
There’s warranted concern that increasingly difficult admission requirements for popular but limited entry Programs of Study (POSt) are at the heart of the issue. Additionally, heavy course loads and mounting pressure as the school term approaches the exam period act may feel like insurmountable obstacles to distressed students.
The problem is further exacerbated by a common perception of U of T as an isolating learning environment among generally indifferent peers. Given the recent tragedy, it’s not unreasonable to speculate as to whether or not such academic challenges and environment are cruelly unique to U of T.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the belief that the stresses of making and staying in POSt are the underlying causes motivating such tragedies, because I’m not convinced that the students affected are ineffectual, subpar, or inferior students.
Suicide does not discriminate according to competence. A leading cause of suicide is depression. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford University, describes depression as one of the most sinister and pernicious illnesses afflicting individual and societal well-being because it renders an individual incapable of experiencing pleasure.
It’s important to be aware that depression often involves a biological component. This incredibly important factor is unfortunately, to the detriment of the individual and society, overlooked or too often dismissed as a flaw of character or capability.
Hence, suicide also claims the lives of many successful and high-achieving individuals. For example, last fall, a highly-distinguished U of T alum whom I knew tragically passed after his battle with depression. That’s what makes it so difficult to grasp: even successful students may be suffering.
The main concern is therefore not academic difficulty, but the limited mental health resources available to students to support them through their university career. This is especially true for international students, who may not have a family doctor monitoring their overall mental or physical well-being while they are away at school, or even be aware of the off-campus mental health resources and services in our city.
The secondary issue, whether perceived or real, is the isolating environment of U of T. This warrants a gap analysis of actual and potential student performance to improve methods or develop new approaches to reach out to students who are desperate for help and feel alone with no way but out.
The university recently received a very generous donation to research depression, and the direction is promising, with broad benefits anticipated for society. But the benefits from such research cannot come soon enough. That is why I’m in solidarity with the protesters demanding improvements to U of T’s mental health support system. A currently circulating online petition asks for open dialogue with U of T’s administration, for students to be heard, and for cooperative collaboration for the benefit of our whole community.
During my military service, I was given thorough and meaningful suicide-intervention training. The takeaway message was not to hesitate to ask people who may be contemplating suicide, “Hey, are you thinking of suicide?” That question is probably the single, most important action you can take, because it allows someone’s inner suffering to be expressed, and with support from others, be acknowledged and addressed.
The excuse too often given by the administration for not recognizing student suicides as suicides is that we should respect the privacy of the families affected. But the real reason, and the actual problem, is that it fears that open recognition could influence copycat suicides. While I’m not disputing that this phenomenon is well supported by research, it is counterproductive to remain silent on this issue. It perpetuates the stigma surrounding suicide and keeps mental health issues a taboo on campus. We can and must do better.
The few tweets and notices by the administration released after Sunday’s tragic incident feel austere and cold, especially to those in mourning. I therefore request that the administration lowers campus flags to half-mast, as was recently done after the passing of a student at the University of Western Ontario. It would be a most humane gesture of respect and goodwill toward the student in question and the student population by the university’s administration. It will also symbolically and widely signify the current state of the university: in mourning.
Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
- Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
- Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
- Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
- U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.
Warning signs of suicide include:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.