An unmentionable crisis: Suicide on campus
Credit: NAMBITOMO (THINKSTOCK)
Western University, like so many post-secondary schools today, is experiencing a mental health crisis. Universities must stop treating this loss of life as if it were a public relations issue and open themselves up to structural change.
The referendum, appended to the school’s student council election, emphatically revealed what university administrators ought to have already known: many students are struggling and need help.
In recent years, Western has been racked by tragedy after tragedy.
Public affairs staff at the school have done well to keep what should be an open, community-wide conversation to a low murmur, whispered only behind closed doors.
Following the death of any student, the university has abidingly employed industry-standard code, claiming that the individual “died suddenly”.
The thin veil of vagueness that the euphemism supplies, however, concedes more than it conceals.
“Died suddenly”, when talking about young university students, more often than not means “committed suicide”.
In an ostensible attempt to be respectful, communication officers and obituary writers the world over do a disservice to those suffering with mental health issues.
To borrow from British author and activist Majiid Nawaz, evading the appropriate identification of something that requires amendment creates a Voldemort Effect. The matter remains unnamed and inevitably goes unsolved.
Suicide amongst university students cannot be confronted without first explicitly identifying that it is not natural causes nor an assortment of accidents taking the lives of so many young people.
As recently as last week, a Western student with depression committed suicide. Subsequent articles published by the Western Gazette and Western News stated that the young man “died suddenly” and encouraged any readers suffering to seek help.
The university’s news outlets used cold, impersonal language and refrained from mentioning the term suicide. Despite pledging to prioritize mental health only days earlier, Western simply upheld the status quo and unceremoniously swept another tragedy under the rug.
The university’s detached, selfishly swift approach to student suicides in not unique, however. Several post-secondary schools across the province similarly manage a loss of life as if it were a public relations issue.
Dozens of preventable deaths have occurred at Ontario universities over the last few years and yet, where are the front-page headlines? Where are the picketers protesting in the streets?
People cannot engage with a problem if they do not know that it exists (or, at least, the extent to which it exists).
Universities, if they truly want to support those who are unwell and at risk of suicide, cannot continue to shun the worst-case scenario.
Schools, in other words, appear to have very little difficulty promoting mental health awareness, but when it comes to merely acknowledging the most severe consequence of untreated mental illness they quiver and recoil.
Idle talk of “removing the stigma” or tweeting an empty hashtag, although superficially admirable, do nothing to actually help students cope with the complex struggles they experience every day.
Young 18 to 24 year-olds occupy a liminal space in life. They are in flux and emotionally fragile. Many have left home for the first time and have to balance feeling both lost and liberated.
Add in a full course load and paralyzing expectations and the probability of a student acquiring psychological distress increases dramatically.
What is more, post-secondary students of the last 10 years or so have had to deal with rising tuition rates, sinking job prospects and growing competition. They enter into massive debt and endlessly toil to obtain good grades; all the while, knowing that the once coveted university degree they are pursuing is now not worth the paper it is printed on.
Universities, if they actually want to alleviate some of the suffering experienced by students, must endeavour to transform the way they operate and approach education.
The path to managing mental illness and preventing suicide amongst young university goers is long and undefined. An entire society is required to navigate its winding trails and everyone must do their part.
Prioritizing mental health is commendable. Though, unless it leads to tangible change that cuts at the root of the problem, it is just another public relations campaign.