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How academic pressure may have contributed to the spate of suicides at Queen’s University

Jack Windeler

Jack Windeler was 18 years old and in his first year of university when he died. (Image: courtesy of the Jack Foundation)

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.”