News : Student Helpline Finds 50 Callers a Month Considering Suicide
Nov 5, 2014 -- Good2Talk mental health phone service gives post-secondary students somewhere to turn with anxieties, struggles and depression.
At least twice a month, Duane answers a call from a university or college student who is thinking of committing suicide.
He’s a front-line counsellor for Ontario’s new post-secondary mental health line, which now fields a staggering 1,000 calls a month on everything from mid-terms to missing home. Some 5 per cent of callers say the problem is so grim, they can’t go on.
That’s 50 Ontario students every month.
"We know, because in these cases we ask directly: ‘Are you thinking about harming yourself? Have you thought about how you might do it?’ and ‘Do you have a tool for accomplishing that?’" said Duane, who, like all counsellors at Good2Talk, uses his real first name with callers but keeps his surname private due to the confidential nature of the help-line.
The Ontario government launched the 24-hour hotline last year to respond to growing concerns about mental health on campus, heightened by a string of student suicides.
In the first year of the three-year pilot project with partners including Kids Help Phone, many students have admitted to struggling with anxiety or depression as they tackle loneliness, workload, romantic troubles, pregnancy scares, relationships, academic panic and even concerns about gender identity.
But one young woman’s voice — and two-thirds of callers are female — sounded alarm bells this fall for Duane. Through one careful question after another, he learned she was thinking of swallowing a bottle of her mother’s pills over distress at her first-term marks. Delicately, he managed to convince her this wasn’t the answer.
"If they admit they actually have a tool for suicide, I’ll ask, ‘Can you put it down? You have a choice to put the tool down and come back to the phone and talk, or to hang up and call 911. These are our terms. But you know you have options, because you knew to call us," he’ll remind the caller. "You knew we’d care.’"
Whether these calls take five minutes or 45, he said, "It’s worth it if it means giving them a platform to give away part of their heaviness."
Fourth-year student Liz White is a residence don at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College who often suggests students with personal problems call Good2Talk as a first step. Callers to the help line wait less than 60 seconds to connect with an expert with a data bank of resources and, better yet, the time to listen, right then and there. The average call lasts 28 minutes.
It’s not clear if today’s screen-obsessed young adults are growing less comfortable asking for help face-to-face, but White said students are clearly "in desperate need of just talking, and talking (to a help-line) is better than not seeking help because you’re not ready to talk face-to-face."
MPP Reza Moridi, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, said "it’s imperative that students in Ontario get the support they need to enjoy good mental and physical health," and praised the work being done by Good2Talk’s partners, including ConnexOntario, Ontario 211 and the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health.
To Liz White, a help line gives students "the opportunity to talk without having to identify yourself as someone who needs help — it removes the intimidation factor." Sometimes, she said, it gives students the courage to then get help face-to-face.
"Students are anxious and stressed and losing hope over the current job market," said the economics major. "They know a liberal arts education is no guarantee to a job. They feel they have to perform above their peers to enter a competitive job market."
But the outside world is just as competitive, argued U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson, at a panel on the "So-called crisis of mental health in higher education" held recently at Victoria College.
"Successful people are smart and work 80 hours a week, and the competition in the real world is intense," warned Peterson, adding that reports of rising depression on campus may be due to the rising percentage of female students. Women are more prone to anxiety and depression, he said, while males are more prone to anti-social behavior and alcoholism.
While Peterson admitted a big campus like the U of T can be "hostile to life … the real catastrophe is that students arrive unprepared; they have no idea why they’re there, so they have no goals towards which to work, and they also have no discipline or time-management skills."
He cited the Rotterdam School of Management where a new compulsory first-year course on goal-setting that he helped design has improved performance by about 30 per cent.
Duane said he gets many calls from students struggling with time management, who spend either too little time on school work or too much.
But U of T social work professor Charmaine Williams blamed campus stress on the sometimes elitist, unwelcoming atmosphere of a university, which can particularly alienate marginalized students such as disabled, aboriginal or low-income students.
"How do we detoxify the university environment? We hear over and over again from under-represented groups they feel they don’t quite belong, but the pressure is on to do it like everyone else," said Williams. "I think the crisis might be the expectations we put on students, the lack of supports, and the lack of permission students feel to say: ‘I’m struggling.’"
The U of T has just completed a sweeping mental health strategy, with 23 recommendations to improve the mental health of students, from more support programs to a campaign to fight the stigma around seeking help.
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Then again, a certain lack of happiness may be inevitable at a place that encourages people to consider big, often unsettling, ideas, suggested philosophy professor Mark Kingwell.
He cited an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer has a crayon removed from his brain, becomes smart, then gets depressed by the complexity of the world and asks that the crayon be put back in.
"Being a smart man in a dumb culture can present conflict," said Kingwell. "If critical thought bumps up against happiness, it’s sometimes a burden you must bear.’"
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Good2Talk is a Post-Secondary Student Helpline for students in Ontario, Canada.
Published: Thursday, November 6, 2014