The news of Evan Tran’s tragic death should give us all a pause to think. Here is another talented, well liked young man who decided to take his own life. There will undoubtedly be numerous articles written about the hardship of “mental illness” and the difficulty faced by university student services in providing help to students in distress.
One aspect that is clear: Evan Tran died of shame and not from a “mental illness”. The persona he was able to put on in public reveals that he did not have the symptoms that are associated with a diagnosis of Major Depression. While people who commit suicide are very likely to be feeling very depressed and are not mentally well, this does not mean that they fit into the neat but superficial DSM catagories. As in the case with Evan, often people receive diagnoses and medication but get little help with the underlying feelings that may lead to suicide. Labels, medication, and poor approaches focusing on symptoms and diagnoses, all to frequently increase suicidal risk rather than preventing suicide.
The University of Alberta, in response to multiple suicides on campus is planning to have a suicide prevention strategy. This will possibly make university administrators feel better, but will do nothing to stop deaths like Evan’s. Suicide prevention strategy’s often consist of anti-stigma and mental illness promotion campaigns, and sometimes even mandatory medical leaves for suicidal students. Sometimes programs to help university staff recognize symptoms of depression and possible suicidal behaviour are included. There is no evidence that programs of these types do anything, and mandatory leaves can actually make things worse for students.
The only way to help stop suicides as by providing easy access to expert treatments. This is where most universities are failing. Most counselling services have evolved from humanistic treatment philosophies, which can work well when services are under no pressure to see many students, but which fail miserably when services are swamped by students needs. Many services across North America have placed session limits on services, but without staff being properly trained in expert student oriented short-term therapy. Rather than learning expert models many counsellors either just try to use their usual approaches just in less time, or adopt simplistic short-term symptom focused models that both don’t work well and also take more time than could be necessary. Session number limits also make it unlikely that students like Evan Tran would even seek help at a university centre. If you were really struggling with long standing deep emotional issues, would you feel comfortable or hopeful going to see someone who you knew would only be available for a short period of time? Psychiatric services these days tend to mostly prescribe medication. This approach can hurt students more than help. Research indicates that psychiatric medication does not provide much benefit to adolescents, and there is little reason to believe that it helps much in the 18-21 year range. Medication can also have severe side effects that can interfere with academic ability, and that also can increase stigma. While medication can possibly play a minor role as an adjunct to expert psychotherapy, it should never be the primary modality of treatment for students.
University Student Services need to get their act together and stop playing politics with students’ lives. They need to invest in proper services and proper training. There are approaches in psychotherapy that can provide quick help to students, and result in many students feeling better quickly. Using expert modalities of treatment can allow services to have the time to treat students who have deeper levels of distress. Models, such as Short-Term Active Rapprochement Therapy (START) are specifically oriented towards student age populations, and can lead to excellent results for both students with highly distressing but acute problems and students with deeper troubles.
It is unfortunate that universities with likely just be doing more of the same in response to growing problems on campus. We’ll here the usual rhetoric about the tragedy of mental illness, and noise about some program or other. Nothing will change and tragedies will continue until crucial issues on campus are addressed and proper treatment facilities are developed.
For more information on student mental health got to: www.studentmentalhealth.ca