Mom wants to talk about sui­cides on cam­pus

Chase Gra­ham’s mother thinks the coroner should track univer­sity deaths

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - PETER GOFFIN

Stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Water­loo know Chase Gra­ham took his own life.

They may never have met him. They may not know he was a bril­liant stu­dent or that he had a sharp sense of hu­mour un­der a shy, quiet ex­te­rior.

But they know he died by sui­cide at school on March 20.

“We hear about the ones like Chase, who die on cam­pus,” Gra­ham’s mother, An­drea Gra­ham, said.

“But he very well could have waited a month and done it when he was in his apart­ment in Toronto while on his co-op place­ment and then peo­ple wouldn’t have as­so­ci­ated it with a stu­dent death.”

The Of­fice of the Chief Coroner should be re­spon­si­ble for tracking stu­dent sui­cides, An­drea Gra­ham said.

“We need to start do­ing some things to stop these (sui­cides) hap­pen­ing, and part of it is hav­ing an ac­cu­rate view of what’s ac­tu­ally go­ing on,” she said.

The at­ten­tion Chase Gra­ham’s death re­ceived is rare, though his story is not. Count­less suc­cess­ful, promis­ing young stu­dents strug­gle to adapt to the ma­jor change of start­ing post-sec­ondary school.

But no­body — not the chief coroner, nor the On­tario gov­ern­ment nor univer­sity of­fi­cials — can say how many univer­sity and col­lege stu­dents die by sui­cide each year.

Pub­lic health au­thor­i­ties in Canada and around the world have called for com­pre­hen­sive tracking of sui­cide deaths, ar­gu­ing that bet­ter, more avail­able statis­tics make it eas­ier for pro­fes­sion­als to pre­vent sui­cides.

But On­tario has an in­con­sis­tent patch­work of tracking sys­tems which does not come close to be­ing com­pre­hen­sive.

The Of­fice of the Chief Coroner of On­tario tracks sui­cides by age group, but does not keep track of whether peo­ple who die by sui­cide are stu­dents or what their pro­fes­sion was.

Steps are be­ing taken to make sui­cide data more ac­cu­rate and avail­able, Deputy Chief Coroner Dr. Reu­ven Jhi­rad said.

The chief coroner’s of­fice will work to stan­dard­ize the in­for­ma­tion col­lected by each re­gional coroner dur­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and to cre­ate a data­base where de­tails about a death, such as whether or not some­one was a stu­dent, can be eas­ily searched, Jhi­rad added. There is no spe­cific date for when these mea­sures will be in place.

In a sur­vey of On­tario’s 20 uni­ver­si­ties, the Star found that only about half keep any kind of for­mal statis­tics on the num­ber of stu­dent sui­cides.

Of those uni­ver­si­ties, sev­eral track only sui­cides that oc­cur on their cam­pus, mean­ing that any deaths that oc­cur at a stu­dent’s of­f­cam­pus res­i­dence or their fam­ily home does not get in­cluded in their tally.

“As can be ap­pre­ci­ated, we are only aware of the na­ture of a stu­dent death as in­di­cated to us by the fam­ily or po­lice,” said Brenda White­side, as­so­ciate vice-pres­i­dent of stu­dent af­fairs at Guelph, one of the schools that tracks on and off-cam­pus sui­cides. “The num­bers rep­re­sent the best in­for­ma­tion we have.”

In Fe­bru­ary, White­side con­firmed that four Guelph stu­dents had died by sui­cide in the 2016-17 aca­demic year, af­ter a stu­dent pe­ti­tion and so­cial me­dia back­lash de­manded more at­ten­tion be paid to men­tal health.

At the times the deaths oc­curred, the univer­sity did what many schools do — they re­leased a state­ment say­ing the stu­dent had died, in some cases men­tion­ing the stu­dent’s name, but never men­tion­ing the cause of death.

“It is gen­er­ally agreed upon by ex­perts that sui­cide data are un­der­re­ported due to mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion is­sues (in­clud­ing) the stigma as­so­ci­ated with sui­cide, and pro­vin­cial and ter­ri­to­rial dif­fer­ences in the type of in­for­ma­tion col­lected by coroners or med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers re­ports,” said Re­becca Purdy, a spokesper­son for the Pub­lic Health Agency of Canada.

Sui­cide has long been a taboo topic that, un­til a cou­ple of decades ago, was hardly spo­ken about at all, even in pri­vate, said Robert Whit­ley, a psy­chi­a­try pro­fes­sor at McGill Univer­sity, who has re­searched the cov­er­age of sui­cide in me­dia.

Not even news­pa­pers cov­ered sui­cides, largely out of fear that the news could in­spire copy­cat deaths. But those at­ti­tudes are chang­ing.

Re­cent re­search has shown that in­creas­ing pub­lic at­ten­tion paid to sui­cide is a pos­i­tive, if it is han­dled sen­si­tively. It helps raise aware­ness and start dis­cus­sions, Whit­ley said.

“(Now) sui­cide is some­thing which we can talk about. It’s the tragedy which ev­ery­one’s try­ing to avoid but ... it’s some­thing peo­ple can have em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion for and re­spond to,” Whit­ley added.

“That’s much bet­ter than a so­ci­ety where peo­ple think it’s a crime and a sin that you shouldn’t even talk about or think about.”

The start of univer­sity or col­lege can be a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult time for young peo­ple’s men­tal health.

Be­gin­ning post-sec­ondary school of­ten means mov­ing away from home for the first time, and be­ing far from fam­ily and friends.

The ma­jor­ity of men­tal health is­sues be­gin to sur­face dur­ing a per­son’s teens or 20s. But age re­stric­tions on youth pro­grams force many young peo­ple to aban­don the men­tal health ser­vices they have ac­cessed for years around the age of 18 — leav­ing them on their own to find new sources of help in the adult health care sys­tem.

In 2016, re­searchers from the Pub­lic Health Agency of Canada con­sulted with over 350 com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and In­dige­nous groups, to iden­tify pri­or­i­ties for sui­cide pre­ven­tion in Canada.

One of the key find­ings from the con­sul­ta­tion was that Cana­dian sui­cide statis­tics, “in­clud­ing sui­cide ... data and re­search re­sults, is frag­mented, com­plex” and of­ten dif­fi­cult to ac­cess.

“Data and re­search re­sults pro­vide the ba­sis of ev­i­dence needed to de­fine the scope of the prob­lem in Canada ... track changes in sui­cide rates, bet­ter un­der­stand risk and pro­tec­tive fac­tors, in­form poli­cies and pro­grams, and eval­u­ate pre­ven­tion ef­forts,” the Pub­lic Health Agency wrote.

Sim­i­larly, in a 2014 re­port, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, called for im­proved avail­abil­ity and qual­ity of data on sui­cides and sui­cide at­tempts glob­ally, say­ing they were “re­quired for ef­fec­tive sui­cide pre­ven­tion.”

In the days af­ter Gra­ham’s death, the sec­ond on-cam­pus sui­cide at the Univer­sity of Water­loo since Jan­uary, the school’s pres­i­dent, Feridun Ham­dul­lah­pur, an­nounced the cre­ation of an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee on men­tal health, cit­ing “the re­cent sui­cide of a first-year stu­dent” as a cat­a­lyst.

It was the first time the univer­sity had ever pub­licly ac­knowl­edged a spe­cific stu­dent sui­cide, said Wal­ter Mit­tel­staedt, the univer­sity’s di­rec­tor of Cam­pus Well­ness.

“What we said this time was in re­sponse to a grow­ing con­cern and mis­in­for­ma­tion,” Mit­tel­staedt said.

“(So­cial me­dia users) were re­peat­edly say­ing the Univer­sity of Water­loo has the worst sui­cide rate of all cam­puses, which I mean, we have no way of know­ing that.”

The Water­loo pres­i­dent’s state­ment on Chase Gra­ham’s sui­cide “makes me feel hope­ful that the univer­sity will be tak­ing a dif­fer­ent ap­proach in terms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­lic re­la­tions on is­sues like these,” Water­loo stu­dent and men­tal health ad­vo­cate Dia Rah­man said.

It was dis­ap­point­ing, how­ever, that the state­ment only came af­ter a stu­dent pe­ti­tion and so­cial me­dia dis­cus­sion called at­ten­tion to the sui­cide, she added.

“For the bet­ter­ment of the com­mu­nity, as well as help­ing uni­ver­si­ties ... main­tain well-be­ing, I think stu­dent sui­cides should be bet­ter tracked,” Rah­man said.

“How else would you fig­ure out whether there’s a dire need for some­thing to be changed in the com­mu­nity?”

Men­tal health-re­lated data is “se­verely lack­ing” across the board, not just for sui­cide and not just for univer­sity stu­dents, said Eric Win­deler, whose son Jack died by sui­cide in 2010 dur­ing his first year at Queen’s Univer­sity.

An­drea Gra­ham wants to see uni­ver­si­ties’ ap­proach to men­tal health change. She has called for more con­ve­nient and proac­tive ac­cess to men­tal health ser­vices for stu­dents who may feel iso­lated at school.

Gra­ham says tracking of stu­dent sui­cides is needed if we want to un­der­stand the scope of the prob­lem.

“I just hope some things change,” she added.

“I just dread the day that I hear of some­thing else hap­pen­ing.”

COUR­TESY OF AN­DREA GRA­HAM

An­drea Gra­ham, left, says On­tario’s chief coroner should track univer­sity stu­dent sui­cides, af­ter her son Chase Gra­ham, right, took his own life in March. It would help iden­tify just how big the is­sue is, Gra­ham says.

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