A basketball star's parents want frank talk on student suicide

Jacob Ranton's family and friends want profound changes around mental health and young adullts.

Family of late MUN basketball star push for open dialogue as province shares suicide stats

Jacob Ranton, who stood six-foot-eight, was seen by family and friends as a 'gentle giant.' (Paul Smith/CBC)

Their home in Waterloo, Ont., is a long way from the basketball court at Memorial University in St. John's, but Doug and Sandra Ranton still feel a strong connection with the place where their son Jacob once flourished. 

A star member of MUN's basketball team, Jacob Ranton was midway through a breakout season in 2014. He was averaging 20 points a game and was a beloved teammate, friend and student at MUN.

Standing six-foot-eight, Jacob was a "gentle giant" to his parents and others  — compassionate, always quick to jump in to help others in need, known for a goofy sense of humour. 

Not seen was the mental illness that would end his life in December 2014, just two days before Christmas.

Doug and Sandra Ranton have been advocates for suicide prevention, since losing their son Jacob to suicide in 2014. (Paul Smith/CBC)

He died by suicide near Waterloo, after he left St. John's for the semester break.

"The one thing that we tell people is Jacob died of a life-threatening illness," Doug Ranton said during an interview. 

"Whether it's cancer or heart disease, etc., mental illness is a disease as well and it can be life-threatening. If it's not treated and people don't get help, it can be dangerous."

The Rantons are part of a growing call for openness and transparency about suicide, particularly how it affects post-secondary students. 

Campuses may be a place where students can explore new frontiers, but suicide remains cloaked in stigma, and often is not candidly discussed. 

Whispers on campus

If suicide is not a matter of open discussion on campus, it is a matter of whispers. Students hear them at the meal hall, or rumours in the hallways, or talk in the tunnels.

For many, there are personal connections to tragedy.

Students at Memorial University — as well as the College of the North Atlantic and other post-secondary schools in Newfoundland and Labrador — all know that some of their peers die by suicide each year, or try to end their lives. 

Jacob Ranton (No. 10) was a star basketball player at Memorial University. He took his own life in 2014. (Dustin Silvey)

But how many, and just how big of a problem suicide is on campus, is hard to pin down. 

According to chief medical examiner Dr. Simon Avis, 23 students took their own lives from September 1996 through December 2017. These figures involve students who were 19 or older, and who studied at MUN, CNA and regional colleges, or who were doing their high school equivalency 

We know that by sharing stories, people come forward.- Sandra Ranton

Those numbers, however, do not include students who died out of province, first-year students who had not yet turned 19, or students whose families declined to list their school status.

Still, they are pieces of a puzzle that Doug and Sandra Ranton say is necessary to gain a fuller understanding of mental health among young adults. 

The critical piece, they say, is open discussion. 

"I think it'll bring the issue to life a little bit more," said Sandra Ranton.

 "We know that by sharing stories, people come forward. We are hearing that. That needs to be there for everybody."

Struggling in silence  

Sitting in their home in Waterloo, both parents wear T-shirts carrying the mantra "My Life Matters" — a way to remind them and others that it's OK, and quite normal, to ask for help.

More than three years have gone by since Jacob's death. The loss still stings, but they have never stopped talking about him, or what he endured before he died.

"I think pretty early on, we felt that if Jacob struggled and felt so much pain, there has to be others that are struggling and feeling the same way," said Doug Ranton.

"We felt that maybe somehow, we could utilize Jacob's passing to help others."

This photo from Jacob's high school graduation, preserved on the mantle of his family's home, shows his goofier side. (Paul Smith/CBC)

In just over a year and half at MUN, Jacob had made a home in Newfoundland.

"He made a lot of great friends," said Doug Ranton. "The one thing they said about him is he's larger than life. He was able to light up a room any time he walked into it,"

But privately he was struggling, facing a battle that he never revealed to his friends, teammates and family. 

A display in Doug and Sandra Ranton's family home commemorates his time at MUN. (Paul Smith/CBC)

"I think the hard part for us, and his brother and his very close friends, is that we were all just right here, and he wasn't able to open up to us about what was going on," said Sandra Ranton. 

Disguised inner turmoil to close friend

Jacob and his good friend Noel Moffatt did plenty of things together in St. John's: grabbing coffee after practice, going out for drinks with the squad, watching football while eating wings. 

One thing they didn't do: talk about how Jacob had been struggling. 

Noel Moffatt was a teammate of Jacob Ranton at Memorial University. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"He was a great guy. He was someone that always cared about other people, almost more than himself," said Moffatt, who described their friendship as inseparable. 

"I always say that instead of looking down on people he always brought people up … just a very caring, loving guy."

The two athletes became close friends at MUN, bonding on and off the court. (Submitted by Noel Moffatt )

That December, when Moffatt drove Jacob to the airport to head home for Christmas, he showed no signs that he was feeling down.

Although Jacob had said his exams had gone well, Mofatt later found out from the Rantons that Jacob had not written a single one. 

Moffatt keeps Jacob's memory close to him on the basketball court. (Submitted by Noel Moffatt)

To Moffatt, the biggest thing that he's learned in the three years since Jacob passed is that friends need to check in on each other — and to probe deeper.

"Mental illness is not something that you'd see like you'd see [with] a physical injury, like a broken arm. So you've just got to be extra careful in making sure people are OK, even if they seem OK," he said.

"Just making that extra effort to ask."

Disclosure an issue

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Jacob Ranton's death won't be found in any official statistic at the university or provincial level, because he died in a different province.

And while the numbers for some student suicides in this province may be noted by the chief medical officer, disclosure at individual university campuses is another story.

At CNA, officials confirmed that the school does not track the deaths of students who take their own lives.

Peter Cornish, the head of MUN's Counselling and Wellness Centre, says suicide is not on the rise at MUN and other schools in the province. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

At MUN, on-campus suicides are tracked in an official capacity, while off-campus deaths are tracked unofficially.

"We're almost always aware of suicides of students and we track that," said Peter Cornish, director of MUN's Student Wellness and Counselling Centre.

"But the issue is what we can do with that information."

In the last 26 years, Cornish confirmed three cases of suicide of students in residence on the main St. John's campus. Two others died at the school's Grenfell campus.

Disclosing these deaths is rare, however, because many grieving parents, affected by the stigma that still surrounds suicide, ask the university to respect their privacy and conceal the cause of their child's death. 

"The downside of not making the information public is that we're sending a message that people should be ashamed of this," said Cornish. "And I don't think that's intentional."

An opportunity to dispel myths

Instead of acknowledging suicides publicly, Memorial University typically sends out emails announcing a student's sudden death without specifying the cause. 

In time, many students and members of the community have taken that to mean there was a suicide, even if that's not always the case.

Memorial University says five students have died by suicide on its Grenfell and St. John's campuses in the last 20 years. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"Sudden death seems to be the spelling for suicide. It's not S-U-I-C-I-D-E, it's S-U-D-D-E-N D-E-A-T-H," said suicide counsellor Tina Davies.

"When you read in the obituaries someone has died suddenly, nine times out of 10, that's a suicide."

If the university could openly acknowledge a death when it occurs, Cornish thinks it would end this rumour mill and be better for the student population.

"If we could say that it was [suicide] then we could openly talk in that moment about all the resources that are available for anybody that's having thoughts about suicide or is feeling particularly triggered by this event," said Cornish.

"We could take it as an opportunity to dispel a lot of myths about suicide."

Conversation is opening up

These issues are ones that Tina Davies, who lives in St. John's, has been dealing with for more than two decades. 

Davis started a foundation to honour her son, Richard, who died in December 1995. Today, she spends much of her time advocating for suicide prevention and working with the bereaved, including the families of some post-secondary students who have taken their lives.

Tina Davies says talking about suicide openly, and honestly, is one of the first steps to tackling the problem. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

According to her, the rigour of university life, and the adjustment to being on their own for the first time, can be incredibly stressful. 

"It's not only the stress the students put on themselves, but their parents. How to get good marks? Is there gonna be a job?" she said. 

"I've borrowed all this money, I have to pay student loans back. What's gonna happen? There's a lot of stresses." 

The data collected by the chief medical examiner's office shows there is about one student suicide per year, that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the mental health issues that students face every day. 

At the Wellness Centre at MUN, some 2,053 students sought counselling in 2016. 

A survey conducted by the National College Health Assessment service in 2016 revealed: 

  • 26.2 per cent of MUN students reported that they were diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health issue.
  • 7.8 per cent of MUN students reported that they were prescribed medication for anxiety.
  • 1.3 per cent of MUN students were prescribed medication for ADHD.
  • Six per cent of MUN students were prescribed medication for depression.

Cornish says if suicides are named for what they are, more people will seek help.

"I think if we're all more comfortable naming a suicide when it happens, then we're all going to be more comfortable talking about any kind of mental health because it doesn't scare us anymore," he said.

Keeping memory alive

This past December, Doug and Sandra Ranton, along with their son Trevor, marked the third anniversary of Jacob's death.

December is always a difficult time for them, but the family pushed through to keep his memory alive.

On Dec. 15, they hosted the third annual Jacob Ranton Memorial Basketball Tournament in Waterloo, with all proceeds going to the Waterloo Suicide Prevention Council.

This graph provided by MUN shows the number of students at the school's St. John's campus making use of counselling services by year. (Memorial University)

In their grief, they've met with many support groups and counsellors to try to make sense of their family's loss.

It never gets easier, but one thing they've learned, they both stressed, is that the only way to prevent further suicides from happening is to talk about them and to let others know that "It's OK not to be OK" and ask for help.

By continuing to share Jacob's story, the family hopes that someone, somewhere, will hear their message when they need it the most. 

"Breaking down that stigma is so important," he said. 

"We have to communicate, we have to talk about it, and we can't hide it," he said.

The third annual Jacob Ranton Memorial Basketball tournament took place this past December. (Doug Ranton/Facebook)

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there.

Contact the N.L. 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line Toll Free here: 1-888-737-4668

About the Author

Andrew Sampson

Andrew Sampson is a journalist with CBC News in St. John's.