In memory of Jack Windeler

I was driving into Toronto on my way to a meeting when my daughter called, crying because her backpack was missing.  Turns out, while we were sleeping, someone broke into our car, grabbed her backpack, emptied it on our neighbour’s lawn, and from our garage, stole some beer to put into the backpack and took off on my son’s bike. She was inconsolable and as I hung up the phone and walked into Jim Power’s office, (who, for those of you who don’t know, is the Head of Toronto’s Upper Canada College).  I had to stop, take a breath and refocus. My heart went out to my poor daughter’s tears as she, in her nine year-old innocence, was forced to come face-to-face with the cruelty of human beings and the selfishness that governed some people’s behaviour.  I knew this would be a tough lesson in life for her and that it would be important that she respond not in anger, but in empathy for people whose lives are so miserable and misguided, that they would think it’s okay to steal and ruin other people’s property.  I’d have a mothering challenge when I got home that night.

So I was prepared to be somewhat distracted throughout my meeting at UCC.  But the person I was meeting with made me stop ruminating on my domestic travails.

Eric Windeler is the father of Jack who died of suicide last March during his first year at university.  Since then, his family has learned that Jack suffered from mental illness and they have worked tirelessly to understand more about mental illness and suicide. Their journey has helped countless other parents and educators to be more aware of the potential for this kind of tragedy in their own lives.

Eric explained:

“We have learned  first hand how invisible mental illness can be. It is hard, at first, to understand clearly that mental health is another illness that can kill, just like like heart disease or cancer. Gradually, we have accepted that symptoms of mental illness are no more under the control of the sufferer than are the symptoms of a ‘physical’ illness. In the case of mental illness, the brain is the organ that is ill. In some cases, so ill, that the painful symptoms can include an overwhelming and all-consuming desire to end your life – in order to stop the pain.

We have also learned a lot about suicide. Sadly it is the second leading killer of youth next to accidents of all kinds. Further, it is generally accepted that the stats on suicide are understated, likely greatly understated. This is for many reasons – not the least of which is the stigma and pain associated with admitting a family member took this decision. We have also learned about the societal discrimination that is borne by the sufferers … only 30% will even seek help due to the associated embarrassment, stigma and discrimination. We have heard first hand from numerous current and former sufferers who have told us their personal story of how hard it is to ask for help, and the difficulty that exists to even get help from the system as it is today. We know that only as the stigma around mental illness and suicide disappears will there be proper support for people suffering these forms of illness.”

Suicide has been growing among teens.  In a recent survey of 15,000 grade 7 to 12 students in British Columbia, 34% knew of someone who had attempted or died by suicide; 16% had seriously considered suicide; 14% had made a suicide plan; 7% had made an attempt and 2% had required medical attention due to an attempt.  Some look to the immediate triggers such as bullying which can cause the depression that might lead to suicide.  There are many other possible triggers, but the underlying mental health of the individual is what we as parents and educators must be sensitive to so that the right kind of intervention can take place and a child can be protected as he or she heals from this horrible illness.  It’s too easy to say that the miasma of adolescence and young adulthood with all the dramas and hormones and confusion that we experienced at that age, is simply a phase to be got through.  Sometimes, it isn’t.  Sometimes, it’s much more than that.

SEAL Canada examines health and safety in a school environment as part of its accreditation process and has attempted to put in place standards that will help schools identify and manage potential problems that could lead to the endangering of a student’s wellbeing.  That includes bullying and other activities that might imperil a student.  We also encourage teachers and staff to receive training in identifying and dealing with behavioural problems that could lead to more serious outcomes.

After talking with Mr. Windeler, I feel even more strongly about emphasizing this aspect of accreditation and raising awareness about these issues that as he says, can be so invisible on the surface, and so utterly tragic if not discovered.

I don’t know if the people who broke into our garage and took our things are anything more than rotten kids, or if maybe they suffer too.  Maybe they’ve been bullied at school or abused at home.  Maybe they are acting out of some source of pain that they simply don’t know how to express. That would be the discussion I’d  have with my daughter that  night. After I’d held her in my arms for a very long time.

“In Memory of Jack Windeler” is a video produced this summer to get the story out to all youth and parents.  It was shown at Queen’s University this summer as part of their training program for residence dons and orientation leaders: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1w9j8jTG_Q

Jack’s passing is a tragic story, but it’s also an important story that we all can learn something from.  I encourage you to spend 8 minutes watching the video.

You can be sure that you will forget all else as  you watch.

P.S.  The story was also featured in a CBC interview on Sept. 10th. See it at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BspADBymhfo

Mental Health First Aid provides excellent training for school counsellors and dons: http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.ca/Pages/default.aspx

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