en attempt and men complete,” says Heather Stuart, who holds the Bell
Canada Mental Health and Anti-stigma Research Chair in the department of public health sciences at Queen’s University.
Queen’s experienced its own string of tragedies when six students
died, at least three by suicide, over a 14-month period in 2010 and 2011.
Empowering student leaders, particularly young men, to organize
events, activities and speaking engagements to address mental health stigma is paramount, says Prof. Stuart. That’s been happening at Queen’s as
part of its Caring Campus Project, an initiative funded by the Movember
Foundation to address mental health and substance use among first-year
male students. The project has expanded beyond Queen’s to now include
Dalhousie University and the University of Calgary.
Prof. Stuart is currently working to build better practices in mental
health programming with a wide range of community groups. For example, “the consensus of mental health professionals in the area is that we
shouldn’t be giving people details about how someone suicided,” she says.
“And we don’t want to make the person out to be a hero.” However, guest
speakers talking to high school audiences about suicide often do this,
even unintentionally, she says.
People who approach schools to talk about suicide are often parents
or family members of a young person who took their own life, and telling
their story and showing photographs of them may be one way for family
members to work through their grief. But, Prof. Stuart warns, if vulnerable audience members start to identify or empathize deeply with the person who died, it could potentially trigger a suicide.
Instead, she recommends that speakers place a strong emphasis on
how people should respond if they’re not feeling well, the kinds of symp-
toms they might be experiencing, and what to do about it. “Actionable
understanding is the key here,” she said. “People can know a lot of stuff
and never know how to act on it.”
In the wake of a suicide on a university campus, there should be a
team of mental health professionals deployed to work alongside students,
says Prof. Stuart. “They’ll have a specific plan, almost like a disaster plan
that they’ll put into effect,” she says. Such teams are deployed in high
schools when students die and “this should be a best practice for univer-
sities as well.”
Too often we react to tragedy rather than planning ahead for it and
meaningfully preventing it, she adds. Universities could take cues from
workplaces across Canada, where supervisors are trained to identify and
manage mental health problems among their staff.
“I think professors and teaching assistants ought to be doing something like that,” Prof. Stuart says. “Having the skill set to know what to do
about [a mental health issue] and how to direct that person to somebody
who can intervene, or how to have a conversation with them—I would
think that most professors would say that they don’t know how to do that.
Is your university prepared?
During the annual conference of the Canadian
Association of College and University Student Services
in June, Andrea Carter, assistant dean of student
wellness, support and success at University of Toronto
Mississauga, and Melinda Scott, dean of students at
U of T’s University College, addressed a standing-room-only crowd about their experience with student
suicides at U of T and how it led them to develop a
co-ordinated response. The following is a list of some of
the questions that they say postsecondary managers,
administrators and crisis-response teams should
consider when developing policies or procedures
related to suicide on campus:
1. Who is on your crisis-response team? Is it flexible
enough to allow representation from multiple
groups — including health and counselling services,
communications, residence and student life, faculty
and senior administration?
2. Have you assigned clear roles and boundaries for
each team member? Do they know their roles and the
limits of their responsibilities?
3. Has each team member been offered regular training,
access to up-to-date resources, and additional supports
or accommodations in the case of an incident?
4. Which person on this team will be responsible for
co-ordinating communication between internal
departments and external groups (such as the police
or coroner’s office)?
5. Who will be the point of contact for various
stakeholders that may be affected or have questions
(family of student, student groups, athletic teams,
faculty, media, etc.)?
6. What’s your communications protocol around suicide?
Under what circumstances will you release a statement
to the campus community? To the public? What
language do you use to describe the death, if any?
7. Have you taken the family’s wishes and needs into
consideration? How will you balance these with
8. The police will often begin conducting interviews as
soon as they arrive on site. Where can these interviews
take place? How will you support university community
members through the police interview process?
9. How will memorials and messages of condolence be
arranged? Who will be consulted in their management
10. Are you prepared for the unexpected? What if the
student’s parents live out of the country and don’t
speak English? How do you respond to requests
around a specific cultural protocol? What happens
when police seal the site for their investigation and
no one — including the family or roommates — may
access the site for days?