Anyone cruising around the Overheard at the University of Alberta Facebook page the night of October 20 saw the way some people in this community react to the issue of mental health and student suicide.
It started with a post saying there was someone who seemed like he was going to jump off the sixth floor of CCIS. Then there was a second post a few hours later telling everyone the situation was still going on. As you can imagine, people were following along, some with concern and unease that there’s been yet another suicide on campus, others with the kind of frenzy people would have over the latest celebrity divorce.
So when Alex Cook made a post asking everyone to kindly refrain from discussing the situation any further until the situation subsided, that’s when things got out of hand. Like a classic example of people doing the thing you just told them not to do, the post received a barrage of comments. Some people continued to ask for more updates, others hurled accusations that a discussion on mental health was being silenced. Cook and others continued to plead that people show respect to the people involved as commenters continued to jump in and argue for 45 minutes until the page’s admins finally closed the thread and subsequently deleted some of the comments.
While those who argued that people should stop gossiping in such a public manner had the right idea, it should be explained more clearly why the privacy of the victim matters and how disregarding that can leave them further unempowered. Anastasia Lemon’s open letter in The Gazette is an excellent example of this.
She writes how following her struggle with suicide, she became known as “the girl who was in the psych ward” despite her accomplishments as a student. Not only was she the topic of gossip, but her state was further worsened when people became quick to judge her sanity, regardless of their lack of mental health expertise. What Lemon’s example at Western University tells us is that gossip is especially destructive towards the victim and that it can further disempower them in their already unstable lives, which is the last thing they need.
Gossiping over a possible suicide should not be mistaken for a discussion on mental health. Clamouring for every bit of information out there without regard for others escalates tension, rather than releasing it. There’s no meaningful discussion about the stress students face around midterms, just speculation that builds off everyone’s fears and insecurities. It less resembles a symposium on mental health, and more like a bunch of high schoolers behaving obnoxiously during a lockdown. Gossip doesn’t quell stigma, it magnifies it and makes things even harder for the victim. A calm response might come off to many as sugar-coating a bad situation. But at the end of the day, restraint is the best way to respond.