Content warning: This article contains detail of personal experiences with suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. If you need support, please contact Student Health Services and/or the Wellness Centre.
According to a 2016 survey conducted by the National College Health Association, 13 per cent of post-secondary students reported having seriously considered suicide, with 2 per cent of students having made an attempt within the last 12 months. On a campus with over 60,000 students, this could mean that up to roughly 1,200 UBC students have attempted suicide in the past year.
Because deaths by suicide only represent a small portion of attempts and UBC does not collect or make public data on student suicides, The Ubyssey spoke to three students who have survived suicide attempts and found that they faced common financial, academic and advocacy challenges when coming back to UBC. Some have been only identified by their first names due to the sensitivity of this issue.
Jessica, a first-year engineering student, had been struggling with depression and anxiety before coming to UBC but saw university as a fresh start, thinking that she could handle a full course load.
“Coming to first year, I was hoping that I could rejuvenate myself over the summer and work towards handling five or six courses,” said Jessica. “Well, of course it didn’t work.”
By early November, she had stopped going to school entirely, before making a suicide attempt in early December, after which she was hospitalized. While her advisor, doctors and parents all wanted her to take a term off, she decided to come back to school immediately afterwards.
“I don’t think it was a bad decision actually,” said Jessica. “I was really afraid that I would lose the momentum of just going to school … so I decided to go back to school, and it’s actually been working quite well with a reduced course load.”
Since coming back, Jessica has been going to a psychiatrist at UBC Student Health Services (SHS) once per week, which she said was a direct result of her hospitalization. While she was told that Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) would notify the school and that SHS would call within a week of her leaving the hospital, she had to follow up with VGH in order for this to happen. She was able to get in quickly however — after SHS called, she was given an appointment for that week.
“I guess after reading some of the articles about receiving [psychiatric] care at SHS [and the waitlist], I feel quite bad sometimes because I only got admitted, I guess, because I had a suicide attempt. So what about the people that feel just as suicidal as I [did] and they can’t get the care because they didn’t do anything yet?” said Jessica.
“Of course, I am super grateful that all the resources [came afterwards] ... but I’m just saying prior to an attempt, maybe there’s more that could be done.”
In addition to working on her recovery, Jessica has also had to deal with the fact that she missed all of her exams while hospitalized, a challenge she had yet to come through at the time of the interview.
“My mom actually secretly went to Engineering Student Services (ESS) ... [but] if my mom didn’t go to ESS, I didn’t think they would ever know about it,” said Jessica.
After getting in touch with her ESS advisor, they have offered to withdraw her from all of her Term 1 courses. At the time of the interview, this process was still underway, as official documentation is required in order to withdraw.
Currently, however, her transcript shows all failing grades.
“I guess I asked the very first appointment [about documentation] but I think I got a little scared off because I think I kind of made the impression that I was only here at this psychiatrist for documentation,” said Jessica.
“Also because VGH didn’t send the whole thing … I assume [my doctor] needed to know more about me first because all VGH sent [said that I] was at the ER.”
She said this was made more difficult because the documentation that was sent to her doctor at SHS didn’t include the reason that she had been to the hospital, so she had to explain her backstory to the doctor herself.
Jessica also reached out to Access & Diversity and while she doesn’t have accommodations, she does have a letter of accommodation that serves as a “heads up” for her instructors that she has a documented disability.
She noted, however, that many of these accommodations have been because she advocated for herself in the first place.
“I think in order for you to really get on track and to get better, you need to be the one to reach out first,” said Jessica.
Amanda Wong, a student in her third year at UBC, went to the UBC Wellness Centre in January 2016 feeling suicidal. Wong, who has now been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was at the time diagnosed with depression and therefore not taking the correct medication. One of the side effects of this medication was the increased risk of suicidal behaviour.
The Wellness Centre was able to get Wong into immediate counselling at UBC Counselling, where she had a friend accompany her. After telling the counsellor about these suicidal feelings as well as about an attempt she had made six days earlier, the counsellor told Wong that she believed Wong was in immediate danger and that she needed to take steps to keep that from happening.
“It was the first time that I told anyone about the details of the suicide attempt, so being told [this] was very frightening,” said Wong.
Eventually, someone from Campus Security came in and Wong was asked to repeat her story to them. Shortly after, they were joined by two armed police officers.
“It was really frightening. I mean I knew it was for my own good, but to see two armed policemen barge into a space that felt very safe and at a time where I was really confused and I didn’t know what was going on, it kind of made me feel like a monster,” said Wong.
“I wasn’t going to hurt anyone but myself, you know, I just felt unsafe. I just remember staring at their guns…. I felt a little bit scared of them.”
After repeating the same assessment questions with them as well as what had happened with the attempt, two paramedics also entered the room. Wong was then escorted out by the police officers and paramedics to an ambulance and police car that were parked nearby. She was asked to repeat her story again in the ambulance and at least five more times once she was at the hospital.
“It felt worse every single time,” said Wong. “Having me repeat a story where I attempted suicide during a time where I felt suicidal … it kind of amplified the terrible feelings.”
Wong said that after entering the hospital at 6 p.m., she finally got to see the head psychiatrist around 11 p.m.
“I was just left alone in the waiting room and confused … I didn’t know how long the waiting would take, I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know what to tell [my parents]. I also didn’t know if I would be hospitalized or not, and also didn’t understand what was happening to me,” said Wong.
After an extremely distressing interview with a psychiatrist in which she was repeatedly asked about traumas which Wong made clear did not occur all — and while the person in the assessment room next to her was audibly agitated and in distress — Wong said she was given the option to either stay in the hospital or go home.
“Initially I thought it would be safer for me to be hospitalized…. I was afraid that if I went home maybe I would unintentionally harm myself,” said Wong. “On the other hand, because of what the situation in the hospital [was] and how I was being treated, the lack of understanding by the mental health professionals, I felt that if I were to be hospitalized — even though I needed it — it would be even more dangerous to my mental health.”
Wong made the decision to go home and left the hospital at 1 a.m.
“I would say that looking back now, it was helpful in connecting me with my current psychiatrist … but the entire ordeal was quite unnecessary and it was pretty traumatizing,” said Wong.
Wong was contacted by the UBC counsellor the next day to see if she was okay, and the two talked briefly on the phone about what had happened.
“I think that phone call made me feel like people actually cared,” said Wong.
In terms of the follow-up from the hospital, however, she said she received none except for the referral to UBC Psychiatry. She finally got an appointment in May, five months after her initial assessment.
Dr. Marna Nelson, director of SHS, said that while she couldn’t comment on individual cases due to doctor-patient confidentiality, wait times for psychiatry are determined by the severity of the case.
A large part of the difficulty of this transition, however, was the apparent lack of coordination between UBC services and the hospital once Wong actually saw a counsellor.
“In regards to your question about communications between VGH and UBC, the attending psychiatrist at VGH sends Student Health Services (SHS) the consult and discharge summary from the admission if the student indicates that SHS is their primary care provider,” said Nelson in an emailed statement.
“If the psychiatrist at VGH feels that the student needs to see a psychiatrist at SHS after discharge a referral is made directly to SHS Psychiatry. All referrals to SHS Psychiatry are reviewed by the head of Psychiatry. A referral from another psychiatrist following an admission to VGH is placed on the urgent list and the appointment with SHS Psychiatry is typically within one to two weeks, depending on the patient.”
Dr Nelson said in an earlier article that the SHS Psychiatry waitlist has significantly decreased since the summer, as the university had invested an additional $2.5 million in mental health resources. Now, non-urgent patients can expect to wait approximately one to two months for an appointment.
“There were a lot of pros that happened in the situation in terms of UBC being very helpful, but then I think there were also a lot of cons,” said Judy, a fifth-year science student. Judy came to UBC with a history of depression, having been briefly hospitalized in high school but was “fine” up until the fall of 2015.
“I was getting back into some problem behaviours that I had before, like self-harm,” said Judy. “It got to the point where I was thinking about suicide and attempting it.”
Judy had a friend take her to UBC Counselling, but was told that there was a waitlist.
“It wasn’t until things were getting a bit more severe that I had to talk to my peer advisor for my peer program about that,” said Judy. “My peer program advisor did probably put me on early alert, and I think that’s why I got into UBC Counselling so quickly.”
Judy said however that once she got into UBC Counselling, it was a good experience. She also went to SHS, which put her on an antidepressant, but not the psychiatry wait list.
“The doctor said, ‘We can put you on the psychiatry waitlist, but it’s so long that there really is no point,’” said Judy. At the time, the wait list was close to a year long.
Despite her efforts, Judy was hospitalized twice that term, once for a week and then again for a two-month period. After being discharged on January 1, Judy went right back to class.
“I just came back to school like three days after I was discharged and just kept going with my courses,” said Judy.
Judy said that because she was already in UBC Counselling beforehand, she thought the transition was facilitated well. She also had a case manager from UBC who emailed her in order to help guide her to resources, however didn’t end up using this as she was already in contact. She also got referred to Access & Diversity and is now registered with them, however she doesn’t think she really benefited from this resource.
“I’m actually not sure what support they’re providing me,” said Judy.
Like Jessica, Judy didn’t have a chance to communicate with UBC while in the hospital and she returned to a host of failing grades on her record, which presented her with both academic and financial challenges.
“One of the biggest things for me was that I really did not want to withdraw from the term and if I had a choice, like if I wasn’t put in a hospital for two months, I probably [wouldn’t have],” said Judy.
Judy said that part of this was financial, as it was past the date where she could withdraw without losing her full-term’s tuition. Once she got out of the hospital, she was given the option to change her failing grades to withdrawn Ws but got no offer of reimbursement.
Janet Mee, director of Access & Diversity, said in an interview for an earlier article that while she could not comment on individual cases, “typically a student who receives a medical withdrawal would not be granted a refund of their tuition.”
Judy was also disappointed that there was no indication on her transcripts that the withdrawal is a medical one.
“It just looked like I dropped out of the term basically,” said Judy. “It was pretty non-negotiable … so I just kind of had to go with it. There was no other option.”
The experience has also left Judy concerned for how all these Ws may look to graduate schools looking at her transcript.
“What we do is we support students in writing a letter to any grad school they’re applying to if there are issues around the number of withdrawals that they’ve had and they’re concerned about that on their transcript,” said Mee in a previous interview.
While Judy said that she was informed that UBC could tell grad schools that it was a special circumstance, she said she felt that wasn’t enough.
“I just feel like that’s a lot of extra steps and when people look at your transcripts at a glance, they’re not going to want to necessarily reach out and ask you,” she said.
Given the increasing rates of suicide in Canada and mental illness among students over the past decade, this is a complex issue with no clear cut solution. While UBC has poured more money into mental health resources over the past few years, these stories demonstrate that students coming back to UBC still must advocate for themselves as they face academic and financial issues also work to recover.
“It’s really more on you instead of [UBC],” said Jessica. “But if you ask for help, there will always be help, that’s my impression.”