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Op-ed: We need to be careful about how we talk about those with mental health struggles

It is harmful to reduce tragedies to situations of overwhelming stress
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ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY
ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY

Content warning: this article contains discussions of suicide and mentions of sexual violence.

The ubiquity of social media in our personal and professional lives has made grief feel both communal and inescapable. It is comforting to know I am not alone in my mourning, but I also feel like I am drowning in everyone else’s. I have no interest in telling people how to cope or how to grieve.

But suicide is an incredibly complicated and nuanced societal issue, and some of the discourse and advocacy on this campus has been more harmful than helpful. Now more than ever, we must be mindful of what we say and share, and ensure our advocacy is focused on pragmatic, evidence-based solutions.

Writing this piece felt like reopening a wound. My heart is hurting. I am in my seventh year of postsecondary education, which has spanned three universities and two cities. Nearly every year, a student on my campus passed away in some years, as many as three. These incidents are sometimes reported as a suicide, sometimes assumed, sometimes rumoured — but always devastating, traumatizing, and a reminder that the last wound never fully healed.

I have struggled with suicidal ideation and have talked about it openly for years. I often wonder if I had attempted suicide last year when I was struggling, if the narrative that followed would have been about law school, about the difficulty of it all, about how I was incapable of handling it — when the truth was that my mental health worsened after a traumatic incident pertaining to sexual violence. 

Even then, at first, I attributed my own state to academic stress. I have no doubt everyone else would have, too. I would have resented the erasure of my experience as a victim. 

That is the predominant discourse I have seen — the difficult environment at U of T, the university’s shortcomings. However, it is presumptuous to advocate around school being too stressful after a student suicide, as if academic stress is the sole contributor to mental health issues. We never know what someone is going through, what their story is. 

People’s lives are complex and messy and intricate and, most importantly, private. Everyone is juggling family, school, relationships, friendships, housing, finances, health, and so much more. Even with our closest friends and family, the full extent is unknowable. 

It is extremely harmful to reduce the identities of people who die by suicide to ‘U of T students.’ It is upsetting, especially as someone with a mental illness and disability, to see the erasure of severe mental health issues from these conversations, the erasure of lived experiences outside of school, and most importantly, the presumption that suicide ‘makes sense,’ that it is an inevitability when otherwise relatively well-adjusted students ‘succumb’ to academic stress. 

It is not. It is so much more complicated than that, in ways that tweets and Instagram infographics can only begin to scratch the surface of.

Perfectionism and dysfunctional thoughts concerning success have long been identified as a contributing factor to suicidal ideation and suicide. But there are so many other contributing factors, like sexual orientation, suicide attempts in the family, depression and depressive symptoms, other mental illnesses, traumatic events, broken relationships, and so on. 

Although having a mental illness is not a precondition to suicide, students with mental illnesses are disproportionately overrepresented amongst students with suicidal ideation.

Everyone has mental health that they must take care of. Universities undeniably contribute to poor mental health, and this is incredibly important to acknowledge and address. But people who die by suicide are so much more than students; not everyone’s greatest stressor in life is related to academics, even if it may be the most easily identifiable one. 

There are students on this campus with severe mental illnesses. Their everyday experiences and their struggles matter, even when they are invisible. There are also students who experience poor mental health because of various stressors in their life. Their struggles matter just as much. 

All students are deserving of support that is proactive and appropriate to their needs. No student, no matter how “little” they think they are struggling, should be afraid to ask for help. 

There are many ways to do this; triaging and case management are a couple of evidence-based suggestions. Building accessibility into the system by mandating recorded lectures, for example instead of putting the onus on students to self-advocate and attain an accommodation to an otherwise inaccessible service, is another. There are many more. 

Responding to the mental health crises on our campuses is not as simple as increasing access to therapists and pharmaceuticals. In fact, I worry that advocacy is amounting to demanding our universities become mental health care providers that abandon students once they graduate. I strongly believe these roles must be and are best fulfilled by robust, government-funded mental health care. 

The university should absolutely provide short-to-mid-term counselling, access to therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists. But reactive measures can only do so much. What about proactive measures? We call on the university to support students after the fact, but what about the unattainable standards it sets? That we as students also perpetuate?

How many of us associate our self worth with our grades, with our institutional accolades, with the extracurricular positions we obtain and the types of jobs we secure? How much do we romanticize being overworked and overtired in overloaded semesters? How much do we reinforce the validity of these cognitive distortions when we frame student suicides around school stress and only school stress? As if suicide is a valid and understandable response to school stress, when it never is? 

I say cognitive distortions because that is what they are — false equivalencies, harmful ideals, implications of inferiority. We are all inherently worthy of love and respect and kindness. We are all trying our best. It is okay to admit we are struggling, that we made a mistake, that we do not have the capacity. None of that makes us “less than,” none of us are “less than” — even if we feel that way sometimes.

It starts with the little things. Reducing the stigma around needing to drop courses, understanding that school may not be the biggest priority for many students, letting people define success for themselves, and not imposing our own definitions on other people. It starts with the way we think and talk about mental health issues, mental illnesses, and suicide on campus. It starts with our mindsets, our social circles, ourselves.

I do not claim to have all the answers. In fact, sometimes there are none. Sometimes, there is no particular cause of suicide, just a million little things and a lack of intervention. I understand how difficult that is to accept, how much easier it is to blame academic stress, how this may be a grief response — but this has the potential to be reductive and harmful. 

It is comforting to see that mental health and wellness advocacy is a priority for many students; I simply hope that we as a student community can reflect and be mindful of the complexities of suicide discourse and advocacy as we try our best to support each other.

Vanshika Dhawan is a second-year Juris Doctor candidate at the Faculty of Law. She is also the University of Toronto Students’ Union representative for the Students’ Law Society and a board member of Students for Barrier-Free Access.

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.