Content warning: Discussions of mental illness and suicide.
Recent suicides at the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto have reignited conversations regarding mental health, how universities handle suicides on their campuses and the contributing factors to these incidences.
After a student died by suicide in one of the St. George campus buildings at the University of Toronto, students led protests to demand that the university acknowledge the death was a suicide.
During a conversation in person and via email with professor Marnie Wedlake from the School of Health Studies at Western University, Wedlake highlighted multiple reasons why universities may choose not to disclose that a death was the result of a suicide. These include the requests of family members and the university’s concerns with privacy and contagion.
“I can fully appreciate the student perspective, but there are so many other facets to it,” she said.
While suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15 to 34, Wedlake voiced concern about framing mental health issues as a problem specific to university campuses.
“We’ve got to look beyond universities, and I say this because universities have become a ground zero where you have [a] combination of factors come together,” said Wedlake.
“We do know that many [students] bring the residue of their traumas and adversities when they arrive on campus for the first time. They might be managing their emotional loads OK when they get here, but the erosion of their wellbeing that results from this combination of historical, current and future distresses, stressors and pressures, can become too much for some to bear,” she added.
When asked what should be done to address mental health issues on university campuses, Wedlake stressed the importance of changing the societal discourse with regard to mental health and how this issue is framed.
“On many levels, the dominant discourse around mental health is highly problematic. The term 'mental illness' suggests the existence of a class of objectively identifiable biomedical disorders that affect our mental health,” she explained. “Through decades of research, we have learned that the majority of afflictions referred to as 'mental illness' are not caused by chemical imbalances, genetic disturbances and/or brain dysfunction."
A 2017 United Nations Human Rights Council report on mental health listed the over reliance on the biomedical model as one of the global obstacles that is necessary to overcome for achieving wellbeing. The report indicates that the strong influences of the psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry has led to the medicalization of mental health and expansion of diagnoses.
According to Wedlake, Canada continues to rely heavily on the biomedical framework, and resources tend to be focused on reacting to rather than preventing mental health crises. Wedlake explained that while medicalizing mental health was thought to help reduce the stigma associated with it, this strategy has largely backfired.
“Mental health strategies like Western’s are working hard to bail boats that the larger mental health system continues to put holes in.… Until the collective of systems — in Canada and all Western nations — change the dominant discourse, until it accepts and works with rather than against the long overdue paradigm shift that’s taking place, we will continue to see the issues we’re currently fighting to contain and address.”