According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one person worldwide dies by suicide every 40 seconds, and despite having a high incidence, particularly among those of a university age, the issue is treaded tentatively by the media and remains widely taboo.
“If we don’t talk about [suicide] then we continue to sweep this under the carpet,” said Rory Butler, founder and CEO of Your Life Counts, an online resource for individuals suffering from self-destructive behaviour.
However, creating dialogue about suicide has become a difficult task, especially for the media, which rarely explores the issue. Some believe that publication of details of suicide influence copycats; others suggest that to avoid sensationalism and out of respect to the family, these deaths should not be labeled as suicides.
In recent years, some university suicides have been widely publicized, such as that of Nadia Kajouji, a Carleton student who died last March, while other deaths have been shrouded in mystery, such as that of Dave Laforest in last year’s fire in Laurier’s Waterloo College Hall residence.
The fire, which broke out in Laforest’s room on April 14, 2009, caused over one million dollars in damages and left approximately 320 Laurier students in hotel rooms during final exams. On Jan. 13, public affairs co-coordinator for the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) Olaf Heinzel confirmed to The Cord that the cause of the fire had been determined to be “incidental to the actions of the victim.”
The events that transpired last year were never publicized as a suicide, though speculation spread throughout campus regarding how the fire started, and students searched for answers that were stifled by a criminal investigation into the events.
Often, it is the result of a family’s wishes that suicides remain unpublicized, and it is widely assumed that media will not report such events if they are not approved by the family of the victim.
The Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) published a statement on reporting on suicides, including mentioning that the publishing of suicides contributes to copycat suicides for those under the age of 24.
The struggle that prevails is what means of advocacy for positive mental health and addressing self-destructive behaviour will be best for preventing further suicides.
“[Suicide] is the second-leading cause of death among our youth next to traffic accidents and yet very few people in the country actually know about it,” said Butler.
Here at Laurier, when suicide is reported or even speculated on, dean of students David McMurray said, “It’s the absolute worst thing that could ever happen – to lose a student.”
However, with the tight-knit atmosphere of the Laurier community, there are many avenues for individuals experiencing self-destructive thoughts or behaviour, some of which remain underutilized by the student population. There are also prevailing sentiments that suicide remain taboo in an effort to respect those dealing with such issues, whether past or present.
High incidence at universities
The pressure put on university students has been one of the reasons for speculation around the creation of Reading Week. Rumours have swirled for years that Trent University has two reading weeks as a result of an alleged high suicide rate among students. This is a misconception, as Trent’s extra reading week in their schedule is meant to mirror that of Oxford University.
When two Laurier students died by suicide within a month of each other in 2000, McMurray said there was prolonged discussion among student senators regarding instituting a fall semester reading week at Laurier.
“Ultimately it was students just didn’t feel they wanted to lose summer work time by starting earlier,” explained McMurray, “And they definitely did not want to shorten O-Week.”
The debunking of what is supposedly a Reading Week myth doesn’t stop speculation, especially since the trend of university suicides is nothing new to many universities, including Laurier.
Over the past 10 years, there have been four student suicides reported as such by The Cord and an even greater number of deaths that have lacked concrete explanation. Butler explained that often the circumstances that are inherent in university life can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed on the part of students.
“For a student who is just feeling that they just can’t take it any more, there can be this kind of knee-jerk reaction that can lead them to take their life,” said Butler.
Statistics Canada reported in 2005 that suicides among those aged 15 to 24 has increased by 29 deaths since the previous year, with suicide being responsible for 24 per cent of all deaths among those aged 15 to 24.
McMurray echoes these sentiments, explaining “the Net Gen demographic puts so much pressure on itself.
The millennial students characteristically are high achievers, goal setters, very connected all the time, possess strong communication skills, but also put very high expectations and pressure [on themselves].”
Supporting to save
Butler said that despite their busy schedule everyone, including university students, needs to be more attentive to each other’s mood and personality changes, and more perceptive when it comes to their neighbours.
“If there is a student that isn’t coping and you’re aware that that individual isn’t coping well, then it just may be that that person can’t reach out for help themselves,” said Butler. “I think we’ve got to look out for one another.
“There can be so many demands upon our time,” said Butler, speaking specifically about university students’ busy schedules.
“We can be concerned about our fellow but we may be too busy to look in on them. I think it’s a matter of making the time.”
The Laurier campus has numerous outlets of support for students, many of which are paid for through student fees and are underutilized by many students.
McMurray explained that Counselling Services is visited by approximately 28 per cent of first-years and over 30 per cent of second-years, demonstrating that some Laurier students are utilizing the services available for them to ensure better mental health.
After the suicide of a student in the middle of the night, McMurray said there was a belief in the need for round-the-clock awareness. He added that some of the extended services offered have been created in response to past tragedies, including the online services offered by Counselling Services.
For some, this 24-hour awareness must start with each individual looking out for their peers, particularly in a university setting like Laurier, which is often characterized by a strong sense of community.
First-year English student and Cambridge resident Ashley Newton has struggled with issues of suicide herself, and joined a suicide prevention group in her grade 11 year of high school. With experience on the issue, she applauds Laurier’s efforts to make services like PEER Help Line visible to students who may need help.
“It’s really important to know that there are people out there that can help and that suicide prevention is a very serious thing,” said Newton.
“If people are aware of it they can help others, and it makes people’s lives that little bit easier if they know they’re not alone.”
The role of residence life
When peers aren’t able to look out for one another, for first-year students it’s often dons who must take up the responsibility.
The Cord reported in October of 2002 that the suicide of first-year student Julie Robbins had led to the arrangement of a training session for residence life staff that would deal with mental health to “help the residence dons recognize the signs of stress, depression and other mental disorders.”
Kyle Walker, who has been a Laurier don for the past three years explained that don training, taken over 10 long days, provides dons with the knowledge to help their incoming first-year students.
“[Residence life] anticipates student issues, they anticipate the times of year these issues are going to come up,” said Walker. “Laurier is really committed and proactively creates solutions as opposed to … being reactive.”
Walker said that in his three years of training he has never felt underprepared for his role as a support system for his students.
Newton also expressed her positive feelings towards the support of her don, who she said “is so helpful.”
“She’s always willing to talk to anybody about anything.”
In preparation for the difficult task of overcoming issues like suicide, Walker explained that residence life has previously told incomming dons of a past don who received a letter from a student years after their graduation.
“The student was about to commit suicide that evening,” said Walker.
The letter said that as a direct result to the time and concern paid by a don who took the student out to lunch that same day, their life was saved.
Along with dons being an integral component in the support of struggling students, Walker advocates for Counselling Services as an important component in fostering positive mental health of students.
“I would argue that Counselling Services might be one of the best resources on our campus,” said Walker.
“A lot of students don’t know that that’s an incredible resource where if suicide happens around you and you don’t know how to cope with it, you could still go to them.”
The impact on campus
Along with the changes to support services including don training on campus, McMurray, who has been at Laurier since 1999, explained that the mood on campus alters drastically when students lose a peer to suicide.
“When a tragedy does hit, you feel it,” said McMurray. “There’s a definite hush and you could feel the grief, you could feel the tension, you could feel the uncertainty … there were a lot of students who were absolutely frightened by this.”
Two suicides were reported as front page news in the year 2000, and both stories were contributed pieces written by close friends of the deceased.
The Cord received heavy criticism for breaking many of the guidelines set out for the media when reporting on suicides, including not reporting suicides on the front page.
However, The Cord felt that the coverage of Chris Larsen and Scott Whitehead’s deaths were in the best interest for advocacy and promoting discussion.
McMurray recalled how awareness has increased exponentially over the last 10 years regarding the “array of mental health issues that students are struggling with.
“[The coverage in The Cord] created an incredible level of campus awareness several years ago,” said McMurray.
He recalled when he stocked his car’s trunk full of Cords to be given out at the funeral for Larsen in 2000, as the front cover displayed a contribution by Larsen’s floormates explaining his death and remembering him in life.
“It was topic of conversation amongst students, so it brought out some of those mental health issues that are not always front and centre,” said McMurray.
The media and suicide
Guidelines have been proposed by numerous agencies, including the Canadian Press, which outline that news sources should respect the wishes of the family of the victim when reporting on causes of death like suicide or diseases such as AIDS.
However, the guidebook proposes that if the case includes someone in public life, “The right to privacy in such matters can be outweighed by the public’s right to know.”
The CPA guidelines include not reporting on the details of the method used for suicide and frown upon the use of the word “suicide” in a headline. They denounce the admiration of the deceased and front-page coverage, among other guidelines. Butler, however, speaking about how media reports on suicide, believes that “there needs to be some sort of sensitivity as to how this is all handled.”
For current editor-in-chief of the student newspaper the Fulcrum Emma Godmere, it is the Sept. 12 death of Michel Gariepy, a University of Ottawa student who jumped out of his residence window, that resonates with her as an important lesson in reporting on suicide on a university campus.
“What it ultimately came down to was informing the students,” explained Godmere, about how they covered Gariepy’s death. “It was clear that there were a lot of students on campus at that time who did witness it and had questions themselves.”
Private acts of suicide are not generally reported on, unless the popularity of the individual makes the story an important one for a certain demographic.
However, with more public incidences of suicide, Godmere explained that there is an interest in reporting on a subject normally ignored by the media. Aside from publishing what is important for public knowledge, the media has an important role in creating awareness for suicide prevention.
“Apart from wanting to respectfully and properly set the story straight, our next biggest concern was definitely shedding light on some of those issues [of awareness],” explained Godmere.
The reporting of deaths remains at the discretion of the media outlet, and often one incident is covered in a number of manners by various publications.
The Fulcrum referred to the death of Gariepy as “an incident,” though it was heavily implied that he died by suicide; other media outlets such as CBC explained the student “jumped to his death.”
The Cord’s history of reporting on suicides has often been heavily criticized.
In 2000, after two front-page contributions regarding two Laurier students who had died by suicide, The Cord received numerous complaints about the coverage, prompting the editor-in-chief at the time, Asad Kiyani, to write a signed letter to the Laurier community.
Kiyani expressed the difficulty in balancing coverage on student suicides and justified why discussion regarding suicide at Laurier is vital to the health of the tight-knit campus. Such a private act in such a public forum often results in Laurier students expecting closure and answers.
“Every person at Laurier is vital, in some fundamental way, to how this school functions as a whole,” he wrote. “The loss of any individual, no matter if we knew them personally or not, adversely affects us.”
Scott Whitehead, 2000
On Oct. 6, The Cord reported that Whitehead had “taken his life” through “self-induced carbon monoxide poisoning” after suffering from clinical depression. A letter from a friend was featured on the front page of the Oct. 12 issue.
Chris Larsen, 2000
Less than a month after Whitehead’s death, a letter from Larsen’s floormates appeared on The Cord’s front cover. Although it did not mention the cause of death, the letter informed the Laurier community that Larsen had “taken his own life.”
Julie Robbins, 2002
A news article appeared in The Cord on Oct. 23 confirming an “overdose on anti-depressant medication” which caused the death of first-year Robbins in Laurier Place Residence.
Lee Maggiacomo, 2006
Former Laurier student and football player Maggiacomo was found unconscious by his roommates in December 2006. The Cord did not report the cause of death but a front page article spoke of his struggle with depression.