From The Kitchener-Waterloo Record

WLU brings suicide into open
Counsellors strive to lift cloak on mental illness following deaths of two students
Friday November 24, 2000
Johanna Weidner

Shock waves still echo through Wilfrid Laurier University after the suicides of two students last month.

"It's the shock of the unexpected and disturbing," explained Dale Fogle, director of counselling services at the Waterloo campus.

On Oct. 6, a second-year communications studies student who was battling with clinical depression took his own life. Just a few weeks later, on Oct. 30, a second-year business student killed himself.

The second suicide was particularly difficult, Fogle said, because there were no obvious warning signs and the student hadn't sought help.

"It's disturbing, upsetting and shocking for that reason of not much warning," he explained.

To help deal with the emotions and lingering questions, Laurier took the unusual step of openly discussing the deaths, publishing names and details about the suicides in campus newspapers, including front-page memorials written by friends.

Dean of students David McMurray believes the decision to talk about the tragedies publicly was the best way for the campus to heal -- and it was a choice supported by the families of both young men.

"Hiding it, to us, is simply not dealing with reality," McMurray said. "It's something that exists. . . . It's out there, it's part of society."

Each year, about 4,000 Canadians commit suicide, which ranks as the ninth leading cause of death in Canada.

McMurray hopes all the discussion prompted by the suicides -- both among students and administration -- will lead to positive changes in the university community to prevent other tragedies.

"It allows the community to reflect on the environment," said McMurray, who was closely involved with immediate counselling for family, roommates and classes.

Already, he said, there's talk about expanding support programs to all undergraduates that are traditionally focused on first-year students coping with the tough transition from home to university life.

McMurray said second- and third-year students face other pressures of living off- campus, increased academic demands and even occupational choices.

Both men were living off-campus when they died.

In the wake of the traumatic events, Fogle said feelings of loss and sadness have touched many students and staff at the close-knit university community, which has about 8,000 students.

Students have come into Fogle's office to talk about the feelings stirred up by the deaths. But, Fogle added, depression and suicide are problems students regularly bring to the counselling centre.

"It's our everyday kind of activity, to a certain extent," he said.

Fogle cited a recent study at an American university that found about a third of the student body was coping with feelings of depression. Seven per cent had suicidal thoughts.

According to a national population health survey by Statistics Canada in 1994-95, almost six per cent of Canadians aged 15 and over suffered a major depressive episode in that time.

Fogle thinks the widespread idea that university is a fun time ignores the real pain and issues that students face.

"It's not an ivory tower that protects them from dealing with serious real-life stuff," he said.

Fogle believes students are wary of accessing campus counselling services because they want to protect their independence and solve problems on their own.

But what concerns him even more is that students -- and society in general -- don't even seek informal support.

"I sense a real reluctance even to share major feelings and issues with friends and family," Fogle said.

There are "people carrying loneliness inside and not feeling comfortable sharing that openly."

Fogle said many of the students he sees are unhappy with their academic program, but feel locked into it. He tries to show these students there are other routes to achieve goals.

"I really want to encourage students who are unhappy not to feel trapped," he said. When people feel trapped, they become desperate.

Most of all, Fogle tells students that feelings of sadness and grief are not necessarily proof of a medical illness.

"It can also be an emotional fallout," he said. Sorrow is a natural reaction to loss, disappointment or any difficult situation.

"It's part of life, it's part of even normal life."

And, he stressed, depression does not necessarily lead to suicide.

He advises people not to get anxious, but take some time to deal with the pain and then move on.

Fogle expects the Laurier community will continue dealing with the tragic losses in the coming weeks, even months.

"It's our role to try to make sense of things, see what we can learn and try to apply it to the future," Fogle said.

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