University of British Columbia’s president opened up for the first time Tuesday about his struggle with mental health and how he twice tried to take his own life.
Santa Ono spoke at the Healthy Minds: Healthy Campuses Summit and highlighted UBC’s commitment to providing mental health support to students, faculty, and staff.
He said he decided to share his own struggle with depression in hopes people who are experiencing mental health issues would feel less alone.
About one in seven young people in B.C. will experience mental health illness at some point, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the organization that hosted the conference where Ono was a keynote speaker.
“The first time I tried to take my own life was at that age, between 14 and 15,” he told conference attendees.
“I was desperate and incredibly depressed… I’m very grateful I woke up the next day.”
He said he again tried to take his own life as a PhD student at McGill University. He emphasized how “normal” the stresses he dealt with were – stresses many students experience at one time or another.
“I tried to get an experiment to work for several months and it seemed like every single time I tried the experiment wouldn’t work,” he said.
“That was nothing unique. It was quite normal.”
Ono recounted his struggle with mental health issues throughout his youth and young adult life, including his years at the University of Chicago, McGill University, John Hopkins University and Harvard University.
Then, he was hospitalized in Baltimore and that’s when things got better.
“Finally, I was seen by individuals who diagnosed me properly and through a period of about a year and a half, I had the appropriate medical support, psychological support,” he said.
“And fortunately since then, I have been symptom free for much of my life.”
He noted that as someone who is now in a position of relative strength, he wanted to finally speak openly about his past in hopes it could help young people struggling with their mental health now.
He acknowledged that professors seeking tenure, let alone students, often don’t feel they can open up about their struggles. But he says UBC will take the lead in providing students, faculty, and staff with the mental health support they need.
“This is a pervasive problem. What can institutions do? Reform is needed … we need to recognize that none of us should be ashamed for the struggles we are dealing with.”
Mental health experts applauded Ono’s decision to share his story, saying he and UBC could influence others to follow their lead.
“His act today cannot be overstated enough as a powerful act of change,” said Jonny Morris, policy director at the B.C. division of the CMHA.
“To have someone of that stature, someone with that level of influence and positional authority speaking so boldly and courageously in calling for change … it has such a potential to move practices that can improve student mental health and well being.”
People in crisis can call the BC Distress Line Network at 310-6789 (area code is not necessary).