Looking ahead after tragedy

Family of student who died in residence aims to raise awareness about suicide

Following the death of Jack Windeler, ArtSci ’13, last week, his family is working with the University to prevent future tragedies like his. Windeler committed suicide on March 26.

Jack’s father Eric Windeler, Comm ’82, came to campus this week to host a discussion about his son’s death.

“Our goal of my visiting … is to get some closure for ourselves, to meet with the University and especially to reassure and give comfort to any students who have known, or not known Jack,” Eric Windeler said. “If there are any students thinking, ‘I should have seen something,’ I want to make sure they understand it would have been impossible to know this was coming.”

Jack Windeler didn’t exhibit red-flag warning signs, Eric Windeler said. Jack Windeler was described by floormates as a shy person who participated in residence events and often left his door open when he was in his room.

“We don’t know exactly what he was thinking because he said things were getting better,” Eric Windeler said of his conversations with his son before his death.

The family wants to move forward from his son’s suicide by helping other students with similar mental health issues, he said.

Eric Windeler said Jack was the type who might have known health resources were available but might have felt uncomfortable asking for help.

He wants to find ways to make knowledge about health resources more accessible to students, he said, adding that health and counselling services exist on campus but students may not know who can access them or how to.

Eric Windeler said he also wants to find ways of educating students, staff and faculty to recognize warning signs they may notice in their peers.

“If Jack was having trouble breathing, or had had a bone sticking out of his arm, or a big bruise, for sure people would have pointed it out and said, ‘Jack, you should see a doctor,’” he said. “But when it’s your brain that has this issue, there are two issues. One is the problem can be invisible and, two, that there’s a stigma around mental health issues. It’s hard to go up to someone saying, ‘You look depressed.’”

Eric Windeler said he thinks a “peer watch” system could help students like Jack who wouldn’t reach out by themselves to seek help.

“Since he was one of those people who was unable to call out for help ... maybe there can be a way that, if you notice different or worrisome behaviour of a student, dorm mate, classmate, friend ... there could be a safe way to go and report it,” he said.

Eric Windeler said discussions with the University are preliminary but response has been positive so far. He’s also looking at working with Kids Help Phone to pursue initiatives.

Ronald Holden, a psychology professor at Queen’s, said suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age students in Canada.

Holden said common warning signs of a suicidal individual include depression, feelings of hopelessness, a belief that life is unbearable, lack of energy, changes in eating, sleeping and sexual habits and withdrawal from social activities, hobbies and sports.

“Sometimes the individual might not be the most expressive,” he said. “These signs have to be noticed rather than the individual disclosing them explicitly.

“I think it would be a good practice if we were to have ... mental health exams on an annual basis,” Holden said. “People aren’t seeking help or being evaluated on a regular basis.” Health Counselling Disability Services (HCDS) Director Mike Condra said the fact that there are sometimes no observable warning signs in suicidal individuals can make these cases difficult.

“In those instances when there are no warning signs people often look back and think there might be,” he said. “Where there are warning signs across the University population, we promote the notion of intervening.

“It’s often good in situations when there is a friend who sees something and can step in,” he said, adding that he knows first-hand experiences of the advantages of having students look out for each other.

Condra said HCDS is planning on increasing awareness for mental health services to a variety of people within the University, such as residence staff, University faculty and students to let them know there are always services available to them.

“Part of the difficulty is the notion of stigma,” he said. “It can be really difficult to come forward.”

To get an initial appointment with counselling services will take 24 hours and a follow-up appointment can take up to three weeks during busy times of the year, he said.

“That can be a long wait for regular counselling where difficulty is not acute,” he said, adding that one in 10 students will visit counselling services at HCDS during their time at Queen’s.

Condra said wait times to see counsellors can be an issue, but students who are in urgent distress are able to book an appointment within 24 hours.

“If we are in serious concern ... then we can take people straight to the hospital,” he said. “Sometimes they’re seen by a psychiatrist in the hospital.”

Stephanie Garraway, ArtSci ’12 and Leonard Hall’s discipline facilitator, lived on the same floor as Jack Windeler.

“It’s so hard when you’re not trained in something like this to be able to identify these illnesses,” she said. “There were no actual visible signs that I saw myself [in Windeler’s case].” Garraway said she remembers Jack Windeler as a shy person.

“You never know what a person is thinking,” she said. “All you can do is reach out to them and, when you do, carefully listen to what they have to say.”

Garraway said she thinks HCDS’s resources are helpful for students.

“One of the main issues isn’t how the resources can be improved, but how we can use the resources we already have,” she said, adding that she wants residence staff to promote HCDS more.

Garraway said she also thinks the idea of students looking out for one another is important.

“The idea of a buddy system is extremely important ... to have somebody to really talk to.”

She said she thinks it’s important for orientation leaders to maintain strong relationships with first-year students so they avoid feeling isolated, especially in larger faculties.

“There has to be someone you can trust and rely on and who has your back,” she said. “Without that person, bottling stuff up inside can really eat away at you.”

—With files from Gloria Er-Chua

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.