*Trigger warning: contains material about mental illness, suicide, and loss of loved ones to suicide.
Chase liked to help others with their schoolwork. He liked to bake his friends cookies for their birthdays. He always wore blue because he didn’t like to draw attention to himself. He was learning Japanese from a book called Learning Japanese for the Busy Man.
And on March 20, UW student Chase Graham took his life. It was not the first time this has happened at the university, not even the first time since this term began.
Since this tragic incident occurred, people have been up in arms about the university’s approach to support students’ mental health.
When the American College Health Association published their National College Health Spring 2016 report, they outlined that approximately 5,000 students had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. The same report shows that universities across Canada with a similar-sized campus have the same numbers.
Graham’s brother posted on Reddit about his experience and demonstrated the impact that an event like this can have on loved ones.
“My brother is dead because of the school and [the] system that has become accepted,” said the 16-year-old. “I need to know that you guys will be okay. I need you to know that you have a family and a home. School is not everything.”
After Imprint consulted UW students, many discussed a culture on campus that causes students to lose sight of the fact that school is not everything, even under the pressure of academia and career prospects. Because of how demanding the system has become students cannot find the time to see family and friends, perpetually keeping them in the cycle of stress.
Imprint reached out to Graham’s mother and father, Andrea and Mark Graham, to hear what they had to say. Full transcriptions of their interviews can be found here.
“If I’d known then what I know now about the climate at Waterloo, he would not have gone to Waterloo,” said Andrea Graham. “We were trying to empower him to make his own life choices, because that’s the program he wanted, but I sincerely regret not doing my own research. There will always be regrets.”
Mark Graham added that he felt the university had let him down.
“When I raised my son, I protected him. I protect all my boys. And when I leave them in the care of a university I expect the same treatment, the same due diligence.”
In the wake of the tragedy, students on campus created a petition urging the university to re-evaluate its approach to mental health. So far the petition has 15,003 signatures, with over 5,000 from outside of Canada.
Imprint sat down with UW President Feridun Hamdullahpur. When asked for a concrete plan, he said he wanted to “raise awareness, awareness is very important, … remove the … misconception [about counselling] because some of it is there.”
Hamdullahpur went on to address one of student’s major criticisms of the university.
“Sometimes what we can do, instead of expecting students to come to us, we can go to them,” the president said.
Imprint met with Sacha Forstner, a current Feds Board of Directors member to get his views on mental health on campus and the existing systems in place. (Disclaimer: Forstner’s opinions reflect only his views, and not those of the Federation of Students.)
Forstner said he has not seen any current or recent proposals for funding for new counsellors in his position at the Student Services Advisory Committee.
“We don’t function on a time scale that’s equivalent to the community at large,” he said. “If you’re waiting six or seven weeks for an appointment, that’s obviously not adequate when the term is only 12 weeks.”
According to Forstner, UW needs less stock “the university is saddened by the death of one of its students” messages and more honest conversations about where we’re heading next.
In a university statement released March 27, Hamdullahpur pledged to implement a president’s advisory committee on mental health.
“It is clear from recent events, as well as from the experiences of our friends and colleagues across the country, that there is a significant interest in continuing to remove the remaining stigma around mental health issues, and to ensure that people who need help know where it’s available and feel comfortable asking for it,” Hamdullahpur said.
*According to the National College Health Report, Spring 2016