How academic pressure may have contributed to the spate of suicides at Queen’s University
Early one Saturday morning in March 2010, Eric Windeler and his wife, Sandra Hanington, arrived home after a spinning class at the Granite Club to find an urgent message from the police. They called back, and the police said they’d be right over. Windeler and his wife quickly took inventory: grandparents fine, two of their three children safely at home. Only the eldest, 18-year-old Jack, was unaccounted for, away at Queen’s University in Kingston. “We texted him and called him. There was no answer.”
Then a police officer was at their door. “I’ve got terrible news,” he said. “Your son has died…We think it was suicide.” The couple called their other kids into the room and told them what happened. Then the four of them collapsed in a tangled heap in a single chair.
Jack Windeler’s was the first of a string of deaths at Queen’s. In the ensuing 14 months, five more students would die, three by suicide, two by what the cops call misadventure (likely alcohol related). Queen’s, widely considered one of the best universities in the country, is a popular destination for students in the top five per cent of their graduating class. The entrance grade average in 2008 was 87.3 per cent. These were kids who seemed headed for success, which made their deaths all the more shocking.
Though we’ll never know precisely why Jack decided to take his own life, we do know that incidents of mental illness are on the rise among kids in his age group. From my observations, this is a generation that, for many reasons, is under intense pressure to succeed. Often the stress is self-imposed: many of these kids are perfectionists who feel entitled to an A in every course, encouraged by our everyone-gets-a-medal culture. Consequently, many of them are unprepared for the realities of life at university, and beyond. They don’t know how to handle disappointment. And all of this stress coincides with the peak onset of mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, after accidents. At least one in five Canadians age 18 to 20 experience clinical depression or other mental health problems, but only 30 per cent of these will seek help. And those who do are desperate. According to Mike Condra, director of health, counselling and disability services at Queen’s, more and more students are in a state of crisis by the time they talk to anyone about it. “Many are overwhelmed by what they’re experiencing,” he says. Daniel Woolf, the school’s principal, won’t discuss the particulars of any of the deaths. “But I can tell you the issue of mental health on campus is indeed getting worse,” he says. “Our counselling services are just not able to keep up with the volume of demand.”
The same is true at other universities. Robert Franck, director of McGill’s mental health services, reports that his office has seen “a dramatic increase” in requests for counselling, with more than 18,000 visits in the 2010–11 school year. At Western, counselling appointments have spiked 20 per cent in the last year and a half. While school administrators and health professionals are cautious about attributing direct causes, they all agree that, in addition to the stage-of-life stresses students typically experience—transition issues, relationship problems, high workload—they are also pressured by the fact of higher enrollment in undergraduate programs, meaning stiffer competition for grades; the increased cost of education; limited spaces in graduate and professional schools; and the unsettling reality that, for this generation, jobs will be harder to come by.
Woolf thinks that between previous generations and the current one, there has been a shift in the way students approach university. This generation is much more focused on the end product of their degree—getting a good job—than on simply getting an education. “When I was in university, we viewed a bad grade as a temporary roadblock. Students now are more likely to be stressed out by marks, academic performance and their long-term future.”
For some students, leaving their family and usual support system for the anonymity and pressure of first-year university can itself be a trigger. Elyse Dubo, a psychiatrist and researcher in adolescent mood disorders at Sunnybrook, says many of the students she sees are unable to cope. “Sometimes, depressed teens decide they’re such a failure, such a disappointment, that their parents are better off without them.”
Of all the suicides at Queen’s, only Jack’s was acknowledged publicly by his family. It never occurred to his mother to do otherwise. “It’s hard to talk about the loss of my son. It’s not hard for me to talk about how I lost him,” says Hanington, an engineer and executive vice president at BMO Financial Group. The family is campaigning to bring the issue of mental illness in young people out into the open. “If it could happen to us,” says Eric, “it could happen to anyone.”
Eric Windeler has spent his career running small businesses, mainly automotive and software related. Between that and Hanington’s banking career, they were able to build a dream home in Lawrence Park and later buy a house in Deer Park, where they live now. Jack attended Ridley College in St. Catharines; his siblings also attend private schools.
When he was in Grade 11, Jack was diagnosed with an attention disorder and put on a low dose of a Ritalin-type medication to help him focus. But he had no history of mental illness. After he left for his first year at Queen’s, his parents texted him regularly and called twice a week. “On a scale of one to 10, how’s school?” they would ask. “Eight,” Jack would reply. Over Christmas, Jack mentioned he had been having some academic problems but assured his parents he could handle it. At March break, Eric recalls, “He was his normal self. He had just signed the next year’s lease agreement on a house.”
After Jack’s death, his father discovered that he had stopped going to classes four months earlier. Toward the end of his life, he became more withdrawn, spending much of his time in his room, often with the door closed. Eric believes Jack was suffering from depression but didn’t know it. And none of his housemates recognized the classic signs.
In a note he left behind, Jack asked his family to help others. In his obituary, the family requested donations to the Kids Help Phone (Hanington sits on the hotline’s board). Both she and her husband took a three-month leave from work immediately after Jack’s death, but Eric has extended his indefinitely. He partnered with Kids Help Phone to launch The Jack Project, an organization whose aim is to support teens in their transition from high school to university. Part of this involves raising awareness about the signs of mental illness, including significant changes in behaviour like hiding in a dorm room or missing classes, a precipitous decline in marks, noticeable weight loss or gain, or substance abuse.
To date, Eric has raised $600,000 for two projects with Kids Help Phone: a tech investment (automating its resource database and launching mobile apps for online counselling) and expanding school outreach—34 high schools and post-secondary institutions this academic year.
Queen’s was one of the first universities to enlist. “It’s been a sad year, but a watershed year,” says Woolf, who this fall is adding three new positions for mental health care and is launching a commission on mental health stressors at the university. “We all need to be vigilant. Mental health on campus is everyone’s business.” Off campus, it’s everyone’s business, too.