In a few weeks, more than two million students will step onto postsecondary campuses across Canada, roughly one-quarter of them in Toronto. It’s both an exhilarating and terrifying time for young people full of big hopes and even larger expectations.
Many thrive and revel in their new-found independence. But others struggle and too often they struggle silently, because they’re afraid – or ashamed – to tell their parents, friends, or teachers that they’re anxious, depressed, or deeply unhappy.
Seven years ago, Eric Windeler launched Jack.org to educate young people and their families on how best to advocate for their own mental health. It’s named after his eldest son Jack, who died by suicide in March, 2010, during his first year at Queen’s University.
Windeler believes the transition to a new life after high school and out of the family home is “one of the most exhilarating and also the most traumatic and dangerous, experiences of your life. It’s also the time that the onset of mental-health problems typically happens.” The inevitable rite of passage in a young person’s life is often fraught with stressors that both parents and their children don’t identify and can lead to a wide array of mental-health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and, sadly, suicide. Katie Edmonds and Nolan Anderson are among Jack.org’s 2,500 student leaders who speak in Canadian schools about their own postsecondary struggles.
Edmonds, 24, was a straight-A student and competitive dancer in high school who deteriorated emotionally and physically during her first year at the University of Western Ontario in 2011, ending up hospitalized with a severe eating disorder.
Anderson, also 24, was a well-rounded athlete and solid student. He thrived during his first semester at McGill University, but fell apart in his second term.
Both have loving families, but that wasn’t enough. Parents and children have to be attuned to warning signs, they say, such as staying isolated in dormitory rooms, avoiding friends and becoming increasingly withdrawn.
How postsecondary school started
“My parents were worried about me before I went,” said Edmonds, who grew up in Courtland, Ont., close to London, and has a twin sister with whom she is very close. “There was no high-school drama. I had a good group of friends. But I’m very hard on myself when it comes to school. Good marks are never quite good enough.
“I was losing weight my last year of high school,” she said. She was going to the doctor regularly and now recognizes that she was already coping with anorexia nervosa. “My parents wanted me to go to university because they knew that’s what I wanted. But at the same time, they would have felt better if I had taken a year off.”
Anderson grew up in Mississauga, Ont., and was on his high-school student council. Going to McGill was a long-time goal. “Grade 12 was a bit of a struggle,” he said. “I was starting to have trouble keeping up with all the demands I’d put on myself and my time. I started to struggle with depression.”
His parents noticed and eventually took him to a psychiatrist. “They helped me help myself,” Anderson said. “But when I went away, I didn’t have them there.”
What happened in first year
Edmonds decided to major in biology and science, with the goal of becoming a dentist. Her roommate was her sister and she began to get marks below her usual 90s. “In first year, they were in the low 80s … not good enough for me. Everyone around me was top of their class, too. It was very hard to keep up and I lost my confidence,” she remembered.
She visited home every weekend, where she would study until 3 a.m. and then wake up at 7 a.m. “My parents were really worried. I would always say to them, ‘This is normal. Everyone is stressed.’ And I did think it was,” said Edmonds, who did confess to her sister how hard of a time she was having.
“My first semester was really positive,” said Anderson, who played varsity soccer and had a busy social life. “But it’s still a big change and it took some time for me to learn how to manage myself.”
In second semester, he began to get homesick and started skipping classes and soccer games. “I was sleeping a ton and watching a lot of TV. I thought maybe it was the winter blues, but it stretched into weeks and then months,” he said. During a visit, his parents set him up with a psychiatrist, but he missed those appointments, too. “I talked to some of my closer friends, but it’s not something you want to share too widely. It’s just awkward. I didn’t reach out to the school. I didn’t know what resources were available.”
“I weighed 100 pounds when I started at Western, and when I left, I weighed 70,” Edmonds, who is 5-foot-6, said. “I was hospitalized for five weeks, and ended up taking a year off. I saw a lot of doctors and went through a lot of different programs.” As she dealt with anxiety and depression, it was difficult to figure out what doctors – and what treatments – would help.
Around exam time, Anderson said, his mood went from depressed to manic, and he stayed up for two nights trying to make up for all of the classes he had missed.
“I wrote the exam, but after, I didn’t come down. I still felt the excitement, the adrenalin rush. And that was a huge sign I was unwell,” he said.
“For the first time in a long time, I felt really good. But I was too social. I was talking excessively. My friends finally reached out to my parents. They came and got me. They were trying to tell me I was sick, but I wouldn’t listen.”
Where they’re at now
In September, 2013, Edmonds transferred to the University of Toronto. “I wanted a fresh start,” she said. First year went all right, but by second year, she began to struggle again with balance and with her weight and mood. “I started to get very obsessive about school again in second year. I started to isolate,” she said. “So I ended up dropping a few courses and taking on a lighter coarse load to focus on myself again.”
Then, a friend invited her to a Jack.org summit. “I realized there were other people out there that I could talk to,” she said. “So many of us feel we have to keep it in, which only makes it worse. Talking is the best coping mechanism for me.” She is currently enrolled in a master of biomedical engineering program at U of T.
Anderson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and also transferred to a school closer to home: U of T’s Mississauga campus.
“I got my four-year degree in psychology in five years – due to my circumstances, it took as long as it needed to take,” he said. “There is a stigma with that, too, but that might have been self-imposed. I was my own worst critic.” Now he works full-time as a constituency assistant for an MPP.
How to avoid a mental-health crisis at university
Eric Windeler of Jack.org said his basic message to parents is simple: Talk to your kids. Encourage them to speak to their friends. And start the conversations about mental health earlier – “long before Grade 11 or 12.”
Here, he and some spokespeople from his organization share some other advice.
Don’t isolate yourself
“As soon as I started to get out more – see friends and family, do volunteer work – I actually started doing better in school and my marks improved,” said Katie Edmonds, who is starting a master of biomedical engineering program at the University of Toronto
“Instead of putting myself down, I use it to motivate myself,” Edmonds said.
Talk as much as you can
“You don’t have to be as public about your problems as I have become, but you do have to share with people who have your best interests at heart,” Nolan Anderson said. “You need to focus on your relationships, and not with Facebook friends, but with real people that you can have real conversations with.”
Two weeks after his son Jack died by suicide, Windeler, founder of Jack.org, drove to Queen’s University to talk with students in his son’s residence. “I wanted to make sure they weren’t feeling bad,” he said.
“I got talking to them and they didn’t understand that being less social, or not going to class, can be a sign. In fact, it most likely is a sign.”
Learn about mental health
“My wife and I were average in our understanding [of mental health when Jack died],” Windeler said. “If only we’d been better educated. We felt, literally, that we were the happiest healthy family out there. Our kids seemed to be thriving. After we got the phone call from the police, we couldn’t figure out how this had happened.’