At two Ontario campus newspapers, identifying the gaps in mental-health support comes with a toll on the reporters themselves

The University of Toronto’s St. George campus is a hodgepodge of postmodern architecture surrounded by brown-bricked buildings that have been around since the school’s conception in 1827. The Bahen Centre, the computer science building, sticks out in particular, sitting at seven storeys high with a glass atrium around the back, carpeted floors on each level and a hollow, empty lobby. 

It’s also where three students have died by suicide. 

The first was in the summer of 2018. Former news and online editor Ilya Bañares remembers the scene clearly — because he was there, reporting on a tip he was given by his editor for his student newspaper, the Varsity

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary during the day — he was spending most of the afternoon sleeping as he had an overnight shift in the Toronto Star’s radio room coming up. He woke up to his phone ringing and a slew of Slack messages lighting up his phone. It was his then-news editor, Josie Kao. “I woke up and she basically said on the phone, ‘Oh my god. There’s people online saying that there was death on campus. Can you go check it out? Right now, please?’”

After throwing on some clothes and making a brisk 15 minute walk from his apartment to Bahen, he arrived to find several squad cars and police tape blocking the front entrance. The police directed him to their corporate communications. There weren’t many students around. 

Bañares called the police media line — to which they said the death was deemed as “non-suspicious.” The Varsity learned later that this was a code for a death by suicide and accidental deaths. 

As a student, he knew the campus well. There was no sign of anything suspicious at the front entrance, so he headed to the back entrance of the building and noticed an ambulance that was away from the rest of the police cars. 

“I got to the back entrance, and that’s when I saw the body of a student under a tarp,” he said. “It’s one thing for police to tell you that something non-suspicious happened. It’s another thing to see it with your own eyes as well.”

Suicide was the second leading cause of death for Canadians aged 15 to 24 in 2019. Seventy-five per cent of people who die by suicide identify as male. High risk groups include Indigenous and queer youth.  

In a survey conducted by American College Health Association in 2019, University of Waterloo students were asked about the status of their mental health within the last 12 months. Eighty-eight per cent of 2,781 respondents reported feeling overwhelmed, 63 per cent reported feeling hopeless and 16 per cent reported that they were seriously considering suicide. 

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic compounding problems existing within the university mental health system, students are buckling under the pressure. A study conducted by university professors at McGill and U of T, published in Canadian Psychology, polled 800 U of T students first in May 2019 and then again in May 2020. Students with mental health issues prior to the pandemic beginning saw little to no change in their well-being — some even saw decreased levels of stress and depressive episodes over time. 

However, students without pre-existing mental health conditions saw their well-being worsen, finding the social isolation exacerbated their anxiety levels, causing feelings of sadness and depression to increase over time. 

For post-secondary students, the balancing act between maintaining a healthy social life, good grades and mental wellness can be a burden. It is no secret that Canadian institutions are experiencing gaps in their mental health services for students. Waitlists for counselling appointments can be several months long and the lack of information and resources for students on how to deal with burnout independently pose major threats to the mental health of post-secondary students — and with COVID-19 pandemic, these already flawed systems have been further stressed by the inability to meet the needs of students. 

And for student papers, the onus of their role as watchdogs  in the community is massive. Acting as the student voice of the school, student papers connect with their community in ways that the university itself cannot — but the shoe leather work that was once the backbone of their journalism has been sidelined by the pandemic as post-secondary schools moved to primarily remote operations. Yet, the balancing act between journalist and student is one reporters at campus publications play every day. Separating being a student from being a journalist is not possible. And identifying the gaps in mental health support comes with a toll on the reporters themselves. 

The headline of the Varsity’s story on the first death at the Bahen Centre simply read  Toronto Police confirm death at Bahen Centre.  The body of the story was short and to the point — police ruled the death as “non-suspicious,” with a list of resources listed at the bottom of the story. It didn’t, however, use the word “suicide” in the headline or the lede. 

These choices were intentional: for Bañares, and the rest of the editorial staff at the Varsity, this wasn’t a news crime story or a student life story — this was a tragedy. They knew they had to take care in reporting on it, though at the time, they were still navigating how. 

“In our experience, reporting on suicide, which wasn’t much at the time, we sort of realized that we couldn’t report this as any other story. This was one that had to be trauma informed,” Bañares said. 

The Canadian Psychiatric Association released a reporting on suicide guide in 2018, noting that the more repetitive reporting on suicide there is, more deaths by suicide will occur. The reports details the do’s and don’ts of reporting on suicide, such as not detailing how the death happened, leaving the word “suicide” out of the headline and avoiding the words “commit” or “committed.” 

Understanding of best practices has continued to evolve. Published Nov. 30, a new edition of the Canadian Forum for Violence and Trauma’s Mindset guide for reporting on mental health includes updates to its chapter on suicide, encouraging journalists to use the handbook as a tool to help inform a more flexible approach to recommendations and emphasizes assessing benefits and risks in the context of a given story.

A lot of these guidelines were new to Kao, who at the time was a news editor before stepping into her role as editor-in-chief the following year — how do you report on a student death? What do you include? What do you leave out? With just Kao and her editor-in-chief at the time, Jack Denton, they faced a lot of questions they never had to ask themselves as reporters or students before: how do we write this?

Kao felt like she was grasping at straws. She had never reported on death. “I had no idea that this would be an area that I would need expertise in,” she said. “I wish I had known otherwise; I would have prepared for it better, probably.”

Kao said that day was the highest traffic their website had ever seen. 

“It was just such a weird, surreal experience to be sitting in the office with Jack like, ‘Oh my God, a student has died and we have to report on it now.’”

After the first death, the reaction from the student population swelled. As the university faced backlash for how it acknowledged the death, a growing chorus of students called for better mental-health services, with the community calling out the “hypocrisy” of the university’s lack of action in response to the death at Bahen as they prepared to vote on a controversial mandatory leave-of-absence policy. Adopted between the first Bahen death and the second, which would come in 2019, at Bahen, the policy would allow the university to “unilaterally place students on leave if their mental health either poses a dangerous physical risk to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies.” Over the next year, it was used eight times and once in 2020.  

The Varsity followed the backlash and outrage, along with the silent protests associated with the deaths at Bahen. 

But the policy was just a piece in a larger, more complex puzzle. With U of T’s high-brow reputation, touted as the “Harvard of Canada,” the pressure is on students to perform academically to maintain the school’s reputation. The competition is fierce and even making it to the next stage of your program  feels like a next-to-impossible task if you’re already struggling. A crisis was emerging and the university, in the Varsity’s opinion, wasn’t acknowledging it. 

The second headline looked a lot like the first — “Toronto emergency services respond to death at Bahen Centre” published on St. Patrick’s Day in 2019. The body of this story was even shorter than the first, simply stating the fire and police department were responding to a death on the first floor and students studying in the building were told to evacuate. Campus police declined to comment. 

Bañares was finishing up production at the Varsity for the week and assumed he would be going home afterwards. But when word spread of  another death at Bahen, he sped down there with another reporter in tow. 

Since Bañares had experience covering these situations and wanted to give the reins to a junior reporter, he took the time to look around to gather more clues on what was happening. He went to the back of the building, just like had a year prior and saw the same scene — police cars parked by the back entrance, the open doors of an ambulance, a body covered by a tarp in the same place. 

Bañares said that seeing the same scene recreated less than a year later affected him personally — more so than the first time he’d reported on a death on campus. 

He took more time off of work and school after reporting on the second death than he had with the first. “I think recognizing that we’re not just reporters, that we’re actual human beings who are affected by the things we’re seeing, was very helpful.”

“As soon as we hear about a death, we just know how to react to it … It was like muscle memory almost, which was really awful to think about.”

Between the first and second deaths, the Varsity developed an internal guide to reporting on suicide and Kao felt more comfortable and more equipped to cover it. By the time she stepped into the role of editor-in-chief, she knew how to break the news to her team and accommodate people if they needed time. 

“It was really terrible because we were so accustomed to this,” she said. “As soon as we hear about a death, we just know how to react to it … It was like muscle memory almost, which was really awful to think about.” 

The third death at Bahen happened at the beginning of the fall semester in 2019. Unlike the first two stories about the previous deaths, the Varsity was able to include a comment from the university in the initial breaking news story, with the vice-provost of students saying in an email that the university was  “[mourning] the loss of our student, and we are here to support our community.” 

This time, the university’s response was swift. Barriers went up on the top floors of Bahen. And students were no longer sad and upset  — they were angry. Especially at their school. 

After the third death at Bahen, much of the Varsity’s coverage focused on the mental  health crisis on campus. The print issue that week had an all-black cover that contained just one word: Again?

Kao remembers those last few weeks in the office before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a first wave of  shutdowns. It was the beginning of March 2020, after a semester of consistent reporting on U of T’s malpractice and mismanagement of a mental health crisis the university refused to name. 

“It took everyone, myself included, to gauge the real threat of the coronavirus,” she said. 

When the newsroom began to hear whisperings that the campus might shut down, Kao quickly put a relief plan in place for the paper. While the Varsity already did a portion of its weekly production remotely, copy editing was always done in-house.

As the campus closed down and the paper moved almost everything to remote work, Kao had to think of a game plan, not only for the incoming editor-in-chief, who would take over her role as of the May 1, but also finding new ways to reach the community without being physically present on campus. 

The Varsity, just like any other local paper, is already embedded in the community and already developed networks over the years,” she said. 

In her opinion, the virtue of being part of a community is the ability to hear stories that mainstream media wouldn’t catch on to right away and the Varsity can rely on its already established and trusted sources. 

“It’ll be harder to continue to leverage those networks and continue to build those relationships, because everything’s harder now,” Kao said. “But I think the Varsity already has such a good foundation.” 

“People are still invested in creating a newspaper.”

Current editor-in-chief Ibnul Chowdhury agrees those connections may seem less tangible, citing the difficulty posed when the buzz of campus life died down. 

“There’s a lack of community in general, in terms of being active and present at the university,” he said. “That’s also limiting the opportunity for students to organize on campus, if they want to protest at the university. I think in general, everything is very much disconnected.”

While the inability to be physically active and present on campus makes the jobs of student reporters difficult, it also presents new opportunities to reach students. For Chowdhury, it’s less of a barrier and more of an occasion the paper needs to learn to use. 

During this time, said Chowdhury, and even when he was managing editor at the time of the third student death at Bahen, he took inspiration from the work he and his colleagues were doing at the Varsity, along with the students on the ground. 

“People are still invested in creating a newspaper.”

As of November 2020, U of T has confirmed another student death. A student who lived in the Chestnut Residence died in an undisclosed off-campus location. Instead of a short news story with the usual mental-health resources listed at the bottom, the university published two statements: one from the school and the second from the Arts and Science Students’ Union, of which the student was a member.

“We are reminded of the many systematic failures of this institution,” the student union’s statement read. “Our mental health resources are inadequate, our mental health policies are appalling, and the responses from our university administration are absolutely upsetting.”

On social media, students are organizing in ways that don’t require their presence on campus. U of T student Loizza Aquino posted several graphics to her Instagram account that have been shared across multiple social media platforms calling on the school to do better in the wake of the most recent student death. 

“We are tired,”  the final slide in one of the posts read. “We will no longer be silenced or ignored. We will not allow the University of Toronto to normalize poor mental health and suicide.”

While the university was hesitant to name the situation, the paper made the decision to identify it as a mental health crisis, putting it at the forefront of their 2019 coverage.

All the while, when its members weren’t running around the office during production or hastily writing breaking stories, the masthead was in class, as students affected by these issues every day. 

Kao had class the morning  after the second death in March 2019. She could feel the heaviness in the lecture hall and walked past sombre faces of students to get to her seat. 

“The profs [were] so confused. They had no idea what’s happening,” she said. “They were like, ‘are you guys just tired? Like, we get it, it’s in the morning, but like, come on, like keep contributing’ and stuff like that.”

“It took a while, but then someone raised their hand [and said] ‘someone just died yesterday.’” 

“As student journalists, we’re never one or the other.”

After covering so much tragedy at work, Kao started to feel her own mental health begin to buckle under the pressure. As someone who struggled with her own mental health in the past, she has not had an easy time being on the frontlines as a reporter and editor. It took her a long time before she identified her role in reporting on the story as triggering. 

“I am so embedded in the community that I’m covering that I cannot separate how I feel about the events from what other students or what’s going on on campus,” she said. “If someone dies on campus, I have feelings about that, I am also affected by what happens.

“We had already known all these people had organized [for mental health advocacy] for the past few years,” she said. “Because we had these personal relationships, I think it was helpful for them to talk to us because they used it as a form of therapy in a way and we already knew them. They trusted us.”

She said that the Varsity’s ability to embed itself  in the U of T community and connect with students is what informs its coverage. “It affects me personally when I report on it, and I think it also helps to make our coverage so much better, [and] more nuanced, because we know who to go to immediately. We know where to look for stories.”

“As student journalists, we’re never one or the other,” Bañares said. “We’re always both and you can’t really separate that.”

When Zoe Mason returned to the Fulcrum in the fall of 2019 in her second year at the University of Ottawa, she knew she wanted to write a piece on the mental health system on campus. 

The story was originally supposed to be on the lengthy wait times students who are in dire need of help face — Mason herself deals with anxiety and had been given a wait time of nine months to see a psychiatrist. But when the fourth death of a uOttawa student in January happened, her editor told her that the story is bigger than just long lines and months of waiting. 

Halfway through writing the piece, her editor asked her if she was comfortable including her own voice in it. He said he thought the piece would have been more powerful if she did and put more perspective on what was going on with students at the school. 

“I had no intention of including my own voice,” she said. “I actually had never really spoken about my mental health to people before, in all honesty, but it had become such a hot topic on this campus and in this building …  all the discussions we’ve had about mental health at the Fulcrum have like really destigmatized it for me.” 

As Mason spoke to students and heard their stories, she was able to relate to her sources and what they were experiencing “I was more comfortable going into those interviews, knowing that I could relate on some level, but then you hear these stories; a lot of these people have been through some crazy stuff. And that doesn’t get easier.” 

The university occupies a few blocks of downtown Ottawa with a population of around 40,000 students. For Mason, she can see the impact the Fulcrum’s reporting has on students. “The chances of you seeing [your sources] are really high, because it’s so geographically concentrated … so in that sense, I think it’s more intense than reporting in a small town.”

In early February, Mason was on her way to the office of the vice-provost of students to do an additional interview for her feature. Since the vice-provost was present for some of the town halls after the fourth student’s death, Mason finally secured an interview with the vice-provost  after a runaround with media relations. But when she got there, the secretary told her the meeting was cancelled. 

Confused, Mason texted her editor-in-chief, Matt Gergyek, and asked what was going on. He told her that she couldn’t tell anyone yet because it hadn’t been confirmed, but there was another student death. 

“For a few hours that day, nobody else really knew. I don’t know who else at the Fulcrum knew; I didn’t see them,” she said. “And the whole day I was like, ‘I really hope that they don’t confirm it.’”

The email came later that night. The newsroom that is usually buzzing with life went silent again for the fifth time. It wouldn’t be the last. 

On Feb. 11, University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont acknowledged that the university was in a mental health ‘crisis’ in a press conference. 

“Having worked with students my entire career, and as a parent myself, this news is heartbreaking. Today, we grieve side-by-side,” said Frémont.

The university had been dragging its feet on calling it a crisis, despite the Fulcrum using that very word to describe the recurring student deaths.

Gergyek was at that press conference. It wasn’t his first time sitting through something like this — being at the helm of the paper this year, many of the editorial decisions around how to report on the student deaths sat on his shoulders. 

The first time he wrote about a student death  — the fourth death in December — was not in the comfort of the newsroom. It was at home, during Christmas break, away from his coworkers and alone. “I remember just feeling like, exhausted by the feeling of it, overwhelmed by the fact that like someone my age had died.” 

The story looked identical to the others; the same head, the same confirmation of death via email, a statement from the president and resources listed at the bottom. It became routine, almost mechanical, to write the story. But for Gergyek, the process doesn’t get any easier. 

“Each death hurts a bit differently,” he said.  “I’ve always struggled with anxiety so when I do get one of those emails giving a notice of death, it always kind of sets off that crisis alarm in me and kind of leaves me feeling numb all day.” 

Journalists face a different kind of toll on their mental health when reporting on traumatic situations. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma reported that 92 per cent of journalists experienced at least four traumatic situations throughout their career. Additionally, this puts them at a higher risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder, feeling more anxious and depressed. 

When it comes to taking care of himself and the rest of his team, he understands that breaks and checking in are extremely important. “A lot of us do struggle with mental health issues here, including myself, so we need to be really more careful than perhaps like other journalists.”

The connection between the two Ontario universities — Ottawa and Toronto — is a grim one. Both have fractured mental health systems that have left students feeling silenced and ignored. With both student papers taking the coverage of this head-on, it is their job to not just act as watchdogs, but also to be a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear for students in pain.

In terms of modifying their newsroom during the pandemic, the Fulcrum didn’t have the same challenges as other student papers in the country. They ended their weekly print production in 2019, their last print issue hitting stands in March of that year. Starting that following fall, the paper moved to an online-only model. 

The only real hurdle for the team production-wise was learning how to amend their communications with one another. Gergyek said the masthead made great use of Zoom and Slack to keep in constant communication with each other. 

However, Gergyek’s concern turned away from the paper and to the students at the university. Every time he opened his email, he would brace himself in case a message from the school announcing another student’s death was at the top of his inbox. The lack of access to mental health support was already at the forefront of the paper’s coverage, but compounded with the pandemic, he worried about how moving everything online would work for the community. 

“I really get where the public health guidelines come into play … but [as] speaking to someone who accesses therapy myself, I have a really hard time connecting [with] my therapist and actually trying to have a productive session, when it’s done via Zoom, or it’s over the phone,” Gergyek said. 

“The decrease of separation between our audiences and mainstream media audiences is way smaller, and I think that makes a big impact.”

“How do you stop yourself from feeling more isolated, if you’re dealing with depression? If you have seasonal affective disorder, how do you get outside more in a pandemic? There’s so many different barriers … there’s just so many different [issues] that require different levels of care.” 

As for keeping the spirit of their community and activism reporting alive, Gergyek said that while the ability to organize in person isn’t possible, he still saw students try to continue their activism online. 

“It stunted the student activism [on campus] for the mental health crisis,” he said. “I think it was obviously a lot harder for people to get together. We’re in a pandemic, it’s really hard to put extra time into organizing, and things like that, when you have to focus on your own mental health.”

Gergyek was, and still is, confident about the Fulcrum’s ability to report on the community and keep their relationships with sources strong. 

“I think we’re so much more connected to our audiences than mainstream news organizations,” he said. “When we see our audience has a need, I think we’re quick to adapt to that.”

“The decrease of separation between our audiences and mainstream media audiences is way smaller, and I think that makes a big impact.” 

For the Fulcrum, choosing to cover the deaths at all is a challenge. But in the aftermath, they make sure to cover stories that put student experiences on the forefront. 

“A lot of students talk about there being the ‘ivory tower’ of the university administration, where they’re so separated from the students that need the help and the students that say they’re being really hurt by these systems,” he said. “We’re there to focus on this activism, community-based angle.” 

Gergyek, who is a Carleton journalism school grad but worked at the Fulcrum in his final year and after he graduated, could see very clearly through his reporting where the gaps were in the mental health system at uOttawa despite not being a student there. 

“This is such a messed up, convoluted system that’s not working for us,’” he said. “I think after seeing that for so many years, [students] started to feel like they’re not like they’re not being heard anymore and that their concerns aren’t valid.” 

For him, keeping the connections to the community and the students make their journalism more personal. “By reporting that and publishing it, I think we’re helping to let students reaffirm [their] concerns [and] reaffirm that their stories matter that their negative experiences [are] not happening for nothing.” 

Near the end of April 2020, Kao and Mason wrote a joint-byline piece posted in The Varsity and the Fulcrum outlining their respective univerisity’s responses to the student deaths. Collaboration between campus papers in this capacity is rare, but both student papers recognized the systemic problems and cracks in the  institutional framework that caused these mental health crises to occur simultaneously at U of T and U of O. 

“I’ve had students cry to me and I’ve cried over these student deaths,” said then associate news editor at the Fulcrum, Mackenzie Casalino. “And I’ve hugged students …  it’s just a part of the job.”

“It’s not just a story. It’s not just one day, it’s consistent. It’s ongoing.”

Casalino had been covering the deaths for the Fulcrum since they started. They said that most of the advice they heard about covering mental health stories was that the reporter needed to “separate themselves from the story.” But for them, separating themselves from the story is easier said than done.

The aftershock of covering a story isn’t “immediate” for them — most of the time, it comes in “waves” in places they don’t expect. “It’s not just a story. It’s not just one day, it’s consistent. It’s ongoing.” 

For them, a key part about student journalism isn’t about just collecting information from a source and carrying on — it’s connecting with the person and recognizing that you’re going through the same things they are. 

“It’s showing you’re not just there as a reporter, but you’re actually listening.” 

Mason said that even as a student, it’s hard to to see change and look at it objectively.  “You’re in a position that not all students are in where you feel like you might actually have a hand in affecting [change],” Mason said. 

“It makes you a little obsessive, and maybe a little biased, but I also think it helps you to connect to the issues and maybe produce a stronger more empathetic story.”

“There’s no other group on campus that has such a powerful voice and has such a powerful ability to create change,” Gergyek said. “We [as students] are interacting with these systems every day. We need to embrace the role that we have in the power that we have and use that for good.”

The Varsity and the Fulcrum don’t know if and when they’ll report on a student death again. For student journalists, the emotional labour of holding an institution accountable — while still being accountable as a student to the same institution —  is extremely taxing. But their role as students creates the drive to enforce and lead change on campus in any way possible. 

In Kao’s experience, knowing the community has enabled her to understand different situations and cultural landscapes of different programs and faculties greatly affects the way she reports on them. “That nuance might not be immediately obvious to an outside reporter, which is why it’s so important for community [and] student journalists to stay active.”

“If you’re not actively trying, instead of just reporting what’s happening, you’re not actively trying to shift things. You’re not actively trying to push the needle,” said Gergyek. “There’s no such thing as objectivity in this situation.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Ibnul Chowdhury’s first name. We have corrected the misspelling and regret the error.

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Valerie Dittrich is a freelance journalist living Toronto and a graduate of the Ryerson School of Journalism. She covers a wide variety of topics, including mental health, politics and lifestyle content. Her words can be found in National Post and The Eyeopener, where she was a news editor for a semester.