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How to prevent suicide on university campuses

How to prevent suicide on university campuses is once again in the news after another University of Toronto student was found dead in the atrium of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

Having nearly lost my own daughter to depression at age 13, and with her university years a short skip away, the news hit pretty close to home.

Yet, as much as I support the students who are demanding better mental health services, I can’t help but agree with the statement made by Janine Robb, the school’s executive director of health and wellness:

“We can continue to throw counsellors, psychiatrists, medical doctors at this issue, and it’s never going to be enough.” —
Janine Robb, Executive Director of Health and Wellness at U of T, CBC

It sounds defeatest, but I prefer to look at it as an opportunity. If we accept the fact that we can’t keep patching up our kids with counselling, what needs to change?

If there was ever a time or place to get mental health right in Canada, that time is now and that place is on university campuses.

UofT instagram post "There's light at the end of #examszn!
December 13, 2018, Instagram post on UofT account

The iGeneration is in the building

The first wave of the iGeneration, those born between 1995 and 2012, entered the university system in 2012.

Not surprisingly, students and schools are having a hard time. While provincial coroner’s offices do not track student suicides, there are media reports:

  • In 2017, The Montreal Gazette reported four deaths at the University of Guelph
  • There have been 10 deaths by suicide at the University of Waterloo since 2010, according to the The Record
  • CBC reported two deaths by suicide at Western University in 2017
  • The Gateway reported two suicides in 2018 at the University of Alberta

The list goes on.

One could argue these deaths are outliers. That the bulk of students are just fine. Except they’re not.

According to the 2016 National College Health Assessement Survey and data from 25,168 students at twenty post-secondary schools in Ontario:

  • 52.8% of students felt things were hopeless in the last 12 months
  • 39.5% of students felt so depressed it was difficult to function
  • 52% felt overwhelming anxiety
  • 11.8% seriously considered suicide
  • 1.7% percent attempted suicide

When a student dies on campus, university administrators remind us they’re not in the business of mental health, they’re academic institutions. It’s a valid argument.

But so, too, is this: if a university’s purpose is to produce smart people capable of achieving their full potential, and over 50% of their students feel hopeless and 11% are contemplating death, there’s considerable room for improvement.

A postmortem for the university system

I was recently listening to the Tim Ferris Show and a conversation between Tim and Safi Bahcall.

Bahcall is a smart guy. He has a PhD in physics from Stanford and worked with President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He’s also a businessman, having consulted for McKinsey before starting a biotechnology company specializing in developing new drugs for cancer.

As a consultant, and in his own business and life, he uses postmortems to continually improve results.

The trick, he says, is to get out of the outcome mindset and focus instead on the decision-making processes that led to the outcome.

So, rather than ask whether or not a net or more counsellors would have prevented a suicide, we should be asking, “why do we think it’s a good idea to push students to their breaking point?

What is the purpose of university?

The University of Toronto’s mission is “to foster excellence in graduate education. ” It’s not an unusual mission.

In fact, look at almost any university’s mission statement and you will find the word “excellence.” The quality of being outstanding or extremely good.

But what is good and how is it measured?

Are schools “extremely good” if half of the student body feels hopeless? And if not, is our government, the largest single investor in universities in Canada, throwing good money after bad?

What if, instead, the mission of university was to foster peak cognitive performance? Intellectual excellence, fuelled by physiological health.

How might that change the way universities operate, and how might parents and high schools prepare our kids for entry into that system? What skill sets are required? What habits need to be formed?

It’s no longer rocket science. Ask any performance expert or neuroscientist, how an individual can achieve peak cognitive function, they’ll tell you pretty much the same thing:

  • Get eight hours of sleep every night
  • Avoid chronic stress, which shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for memory and learning
  • Meditate daily
  • Avoid multitasking or frequent task-switching
  • Eat healthy foods and exercise regularly, and
  • Do what you love.

It might sound like a land of rainbows and unicorns to the average university student, but it shouldn’t.

We’re at the tipping point

Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I like to think we’ve reached the tipping point.

That government, the largest source of revenue for universities, motivated by outrage and concerned about the return on their investment, will start to mandate cognitive behavioural interventions, not just in post-secondary school, but in high school and elementary school.

I like to think that students will start to recognize the long-term implications of four years of chronic stress and start put more value on their mental health. That they’ll choose schools and programs that put a premium on wellness.

In response, I believe that schools will recognize that to be a leader in education, they must also be a leader in mental wellness and communication. That they’ll promote their mental health policies and resources every chance they get.

I am also incredibly hopeful that technologies like Beacon, a proven Cognitive Behavioural Therapy app that includes access to a trained e-therapist, will be included in university fees. A given, available to every student, upon entry.

And I’m confident in the knowledge that my daughter, in a sad bit of irony, is one of the lucky ones. She knows depression and anxiety intimately, but she has also learned how to keep them both at bay. She’s already one step ahead.

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