Students, faculty and staff at the University of Toronto formed a green ribbon in October to show their support for mental health. (Photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Education one key to preventing student suicides

Eric Windeler has created outreach campaign in son’s memory

Eric Windeler vividly remembers high-fiving his teenaged son Jack as Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal to give Team Canada the gold medal at the 2010 Olympics. That’s the last time he saw his son. Jack returned to Queen’s University where he was a first-year student and died by suicide a month later.

“It was an absolute 100 per cent shock” said Windeler, who heads up The Jack Project and is supportive U of T’s October month-long focus on mental health.

Windeler has made it his mission to learn more about depression and suicide. “Three healthy kids, a good marriage, how does this happen?” he said. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 24. Statistics Canada estimates that for each completed suicide there are as many as 100 attempts.

His efforts have led to The Jack Project, developed with Kids Help Phone, targeting youth in Canada age 15-20. It’s a two-pronged effort encompassing both mental health awareness at schools and an investment in live chat that will allow students to connect with trained counsellors from their laptops, cellphones or iPads.

The University of Toronto is involved in The Jack Project’s national outreach campaign, which involves 12 postsecondary schools and 22 high schools. They’re conducting workshops, presentations and surveys to learn about what’s happening in the school community and to raise awareness.

“We are sending our kids unprepared to a place [college/university] where there are a many new challenges,” he said.  “There’s a lot more risk that a student is going to have a mental health challenge or even die than from any other health issue, so our young people and those around them need to be prepared as much as possible -- not afraid, just prepared.

U of T’s health and wellness staff is cognizant of the need for more awareness of the mental health issues students face.

“We’re trying to look across the needs of campus and to see what’s available,” said Janine Robb, executive director of health and wellness, U of T. “Eric is trying to help us ensure it’s consistent and to get the message out there to get higher support from government.”

Windeler says we all need to be better educated about the warning signs of depression and other forms of mental illness. It’s important to act when you notice something isn’t right.

“Jack was able to hide his symptoms when he came home,” he said. “It’s likely he was in severe depression, triggered by what was going on around him at school. It’s hard to hide this 24/7, especially if you’re taught what to look for.”

Windeler believes we should consider a school’s commitment to mental health when considering where to send their children for post-secondary education.

“I think the schools that take a leadership role  --  and I really believe that U of T is going to be one of those -- are the schools that we as parents are going to want to send our kids to.”


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