Over the past two weeks, many of us have heard about a student who was handcuffed in the HCC after seeking help for suicidal ideation. While the general opinion I have encountered in writing gave me the impression that a majority of students feel disapprove of the campus police’s involvement at the HCC, I have had conversations with students at UTM and St. George who believe that this harsh reaction to the campus police is uncharitable.
I feel it is important, then, to state what I believe is a moderate position about students being handcuffed and escorted to the hospital after expressing intentions to harm themselves.
Firstly, to decrease the severity of any ad hominem attacks on my person, such as that I could not possibly understand what this suicidal student went through, it is important to note that I myself have been handcuffed and forced against my will to receive psychiatric treatment in the past. Roughly five years ago, I was placed under a Form 1 at St Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto, and remained there for two days before being released. I waited in handcuffs in-between two large police officers before being seen by a psychiatrist.
My incident with forced hospitalization was caused by a drug induced psychosis where a mental health professional concluded I was at high risk of harming myself. The experience was highly uncomfortable and, yes, frightening. However, I have since recovered from that state of mind, and believe that such measures may have saved my life. In retrospect, I have enough clarity to see that my detainment was appropriate, as I was quite ill at the time. My behaviour, thoughts, and words in no way resembled my true nature. I may very well have harmed myself at the time.
I identify with the mental pain that the student went through and the inexplicable difficulty in coming forward and expressing their suffering. Mental illness is a private kind of torture that I know through experience. I also believe that it can be overcome. What I do not agree with is the radical student reaction to how the police behaved in the HCC incident.
In a statement they published to Facebook, the UTM students’ Union used the noun “violence” to describe the behaviour of the police who handcuffed the student. The irony is that “violence” is, by definition, the use of force with the intention to inflict harm. However, the police handcuffed the student to prevent the student from being harmed.
I would like to offer a fictional thought experiment to urge students to consider the matter from a different angle. A 20-year-old girl named Claudia has been suffering quietly from depression since the age of 15. Her emotional pain is so intense and so chronic that the thought of ending her life begins to dominate her experience of an unbearable life. She is able to smile in public and walk to and from class, but as is often the case with mental health, her immense suffering is completely invisible. Her peers see her as an introverted and quiet person. She even comes across as peaceful. Underneath her unexpressive exterior, she has decided, after years of emotional suffering and suicidal ideation, to actually harm herself. She is conflicted between feelings of guilt about how her suicide will affect her loved ones, and the promise of relief that oblivion will bring. In the end, her suffering is so immense, and seems so inescapable, that she has decided to go through with her plan.
However, a small flare of the survival instinct urges her to go to her university’s Health and Counselling Centre, where she transparently expresses for the first time her plans about suicide. What trickles through her testimony is how skewed her perception of reality has become after years of enduring a chronic and relentless depression; that she is trapped inside a lens which distorts reality into a morbid and meaningless blur. A nurse named Dominique then suggests that Claudia go to the hospital and receive treatment. It is clear the Claudia’s mental state is dangerous. However, Claudia says she has an exam tomorrow, and that she will go to the hospital afterwards, and thanks Dominique. As a nurse, Dominique strongly urges Claudia to go to the hospital but will not force her out of respect for personal autonomy. Claudia waves off the suggestion, and says “I will go after my exam.”
Claudia leaves the Health and Counselling Centre, goes to her room in the student residence, and instead of preparing for her exam, swallows a lethal dose of medication, where she is found dead the next day.
The nurse is now left wondering whether or not she was right to grant Claudia the autonomy to walk herself to the hospital. Claudia’s parents lash out at the nurse’s conduct. Claudia’s friends protest that Claudia was unwell and should have been escorted to the hospital. The more radical of Claudia’s friends think the nurse, Dominique, is actually responsible for Claudia’s death. The university is now under scrutiny.
Suicidal ideation is different from a broken wrist. I think we ought to consider this side of the issue, and others, before we condemn the action of the campus police as violent and the HCC policy, generally.