In 1978, people discovered the body of a young man in a car parked deep within the bush of Nova Scotia.  Time of death was never determined, but it was probably many months earlier.  I learned later that he was Rick, a good friend of mine from university.  Rick and I had studied together for several years but he’d left university before graduating and dropped out of sight. He was quick witted, good looking, and popular. 

A year before his body was found, he showed up, unannounced, at my workplace in Montreal. The transformation in him was alarming. No longer the athlete, he was overweight, he looked as though he’d been living in the street. He was also very private saying simply that he’d had some problems, had no money and no job. He stayed with me for several weeks until, in confusion and exasperation, I told him that he should go home to his family and try to work on his problems. 

I brought Rick to the station in Montreal, bought him a ticket and put him on the train for Nova Scotia. It was the last time I saw him. I would learn later from his family that not long after arriving home, he disappeared again only to be found dead nearly a year later.

Many decades later, as W5 began researching mental health, it is apparent that the number of students considering suicide, and succeeding, appears to be growing, and the whole issue of mental health has become a real worry on university campuses all over Canada.

As students at Ryerson in Toronto prepared for the fall term, the university’s director of health services, Dr. Su-Ting Teo told W5 that for many students, the transition from high school to university is like, “falling off a cliff.”  She acknowledges that even decades ago, the transition was difficult but added, “I’ve been here almost 13, 14 years and definitely, there were mental health issues first when I started, but the sort of volume and the crises and the need we’re seeing is increasing year after year.”

Other universities are reporting the same thing.  At Queen’s University in Kingston, the head of mental health services, Mike Condra, told W5, “Information that’s available from other Canadian universities and U.S. universities, in fact even universities in Europe that I’ve been looking at, all suggest an increasing number of students with mental health problems.”

The consequences can be indescribably tragic.  Four years ago, 18 year old Jack Windeler left his Toronto home to go to university in Kingston. He was much like my friend Rick. Athletic, popular, quick witted. Six months after arriving at university, his parents Jack and Sandra, received an urgent message. Call the police.

“We immediately flew into a panic,” his father Eric told W5. “The police officer said that he needed to come to the house immediately. And in less than probably 45 seconds, he was in front of the door, and in less than 60 seconds from then, he had told us that they had found Jack in his residence room, and they believed it was suicide.”

The tragedy of Jack Windeler is not unique. In the months following his death, three other students at the same university took their own lives, an unknown number attempted it. Experts have long known that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. But a national study published last year revealed one alarming statistic. It concluded that nearly one in ten students has seriously considered ending their life.   

There are no firm reasons to explain why, but there are theories. Students are younger now than they were decades ago, they may be less prepared to deal with the sudden independence of university life, they carry a far heavier debt load and are facing unprecedented competition for jobs once their studies are finished. To add to this dangerous mix is the onerous and still very present mental health taboo that may make students pause before admitting a problem and seeking help.

The parents of Jack Windeler turned their grief and confusion into a campaign that has become national in scope. It’s called “The Jack Project,” designed to reach out to young people on campuses all over Canada, to raise their awareness of mental health issues, and to try to stamp out the taboos.

There are signs of progress. As first-time university students arrived at the Queen’s campus this fall, they each received a pair of sunglasses with a website printed on them. The website discusses mental health issues and directs those who feel they may need help, to the appropriate resources.

Corporate Canada too has launched several high profile mental health initiatives. Among them, “Clara’s Big Ride for Mental Health.” Clara Hughes is Canada’s six-time Olympic medalist who will ride a bike 12,000 kilometers across Canada, stopping at a hundred communities along the way to talk about mental health. 

There is now what one corporate spokesperson described, as an explosion of national involvement in mental health issues. The main objective of all campaigns is to remove stigma. Otherwise, the fear is, people suffering will hide their problems and never seek help.

People like Jack Windeler.

His father Eric told W5, “The fact that my son died by suicide was a thousand per cent of a shock. It wasn’t even on the radar of possibilities. If we had truly understood, we would’ve simply bundled him up and brought him home to get some help.”

Shame is not a disease. But when it prevents mental health sufferers from seeking help, its consequences can be just as bad. Those in the field of mental health often make the comparison to breast cancer. A couple of decades ago, a diagnosis often would be kept very private and within the family. Now, the stigma has been removed, leading to more discussion, more testing, arguably more lives saved. 

But the stigma around mental health, in Eric Windeler’s words, “…is still massive.”  And as long as it is, regrettably and almost inevitably, other young people will make the same choice as his son Jack. So stigma now is under attack. And in his words, it has become “the number one priority of mental health.”