The Current

'You just spiral': UBC president who overcame mental health crisis determined to help Canadian students

UBC president Santa J. Ono was afraid to speak out about his mental illness; now, he’s a champion for mental health on campus.

Santa J. Ono was afraid to speak out about his mental illness; now he’s a champion for mental health on campus

University of British Columbia president Santa J. Ono understands the immense pressures students face, having dealt with his own mental health crisis as a student. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)
Listen19:15

Read Story Transcript

Eleanor Vannon was a student at Camosun College in Victoria when anxiety literally stopped her in her tracks.

Vannon had experienced anxiety in high school, but she had high expectations of herself, and felt she had to be "the strongest and the toughest." At the same time, she was haunted by feelings of low-self worth, and questioned if she even deserved a post-secondary education.

Then one day in 2017 when she had four papers due, each of them 2,000 to 3,000 words long, she froze.

"I was wandering across the Camosun campus panicking, thinking, 'I don't know that I have enough time to do all of the reading for this work.' And I found a quiet bench, and I sat down and I started hyperventilating and crying," Vannon told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Like many post-secondary students, when Eleanor Vannon was at Camosun College in 2017, she felt overwhelmed and suffered anxiety. (Adam Marsh/Nexus Newspaper)

Vannon is far from alone. According to the 2019 National College Health Assessment, which surveyed 55,284 post-secondary students in Canada, 21.2 per cent of respondents felt "so depressed that it was difficult to function," and 23.2 per cent felt "overwhelming anxiety." More than 10 per cent had seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months, and 1.9 per cent had attempted suicide.

The British Columbia government has just added a 24-hour online and phone service for students with mental health concerns; meanwhile in Ontario, Kids Help Phone is expanding its services for college and university students.

Now a third-year student at the University of Victoria, Vannon had learned coping strategies as a teen, but none that prepared her for the pressures of post-secondary life. The panic, she says, fed into her depression.

"And when you feel like you can't do it, then you're not good enough. And if you're not good enough, then you're not worth anything," said the 27-year-old.

Ono, centre, and psychiatrist Shimi Kang, right, joined The Current's host Matt Galloway at CBC in Vancouver. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

UBC leader spiralled 'into deeper and deeper depression'

It's a feeling that's very familiar to Santa J. Ono. As president of the University of British Columbia, Ono understands the immense pressures students face, especially at the university level — from instructors, parents and peers alike. 

The 57-year-old also knows those feelings firsthand. At 14 years old, Ono had two siblings who were prodigies, and he felt profoundly inadequate. Growing up in an Asian immigrant family in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood also fed into the sense that he didn't belong, he says. 

"I was increasingly feeling hopeless. I was increasingly feeling as if I was inadequate, as if I would never meet the expectations of those around me — that I brought shame to my family," Ono told Galloway. 

He describes an evening in his teens when he went into the medicine cabinet and consumed a bunch of medication.

"I took as many of those as I could."

Santa J. Ono describes the feelings surrounding his two suicide attempts and how he eventually got help 1:45

Ono survived that first suicide attempt, but he would later try a second time, as a young academic at Johns Hopkins University. He remembers being so depressed that he could barely get out of his dorm room bed, and couldn't bathe or eat. 

"Not nourishing myself properly, not having the kinds of positive influences on my day, you just spiral into deeper and deeper depression," says Ono, who was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that involves swings between episodes of depression and overexcitement. 

Ono received the treatment he needed, but it wasn't until 25 years later that the successful academic spoke publicly about his experience of mental illness, in large part because of the culture of academia.

"You go through a number of different hurdles to get to a place where you have tenure, and you're promoted. And all of those are judgment processes where data is collected about how you're performing, and how you're publishing, and the impact of your work, and what people think about you," he says. "So I was afraid to talk about my life history, my life experience."

But now Ono is determined to turn that tide, and to ensure that proper mental health supports are in place for students who need them. 

At UBC, the Thrive Program promotes mental health literacy and a supportive campus culture, and provides faculty, staff and students with resources to help them understand and cope with mental illness. The school also offers peer support programs for those experiencing mental health issues, a Wellness Centre for students feeling stressed by academic or personal problems and a free 24/7 life coaching and counselling service that's available in multiple languages.

Today's 'freeze, fight or flight'

Psychiatrist and author Shimi Kang says many students don't understand that their bodies finish puberty by Grade 12, but their brain continues to go through its own puberty until roughly age 24 — and that they can be especially susceptible to feelings of social isolation and disconnection, which are made worse by our tech-based society.

Young children today are too busy, and they're taught to compete rather than collaborate, adds Kang. Then when they hit university, and they are burdened by enormous expectations, they can feel empty and lost. 

"If we're not socially connected, we don't get oxytocin, and we'll release what's called cortisol, a stress hormone," she says. That release of cortisol can lead to a modern-day version of freeze, fight or flight. 

Even if the goal is academic, when we teach young people emotional skills, social skills, we see better mental health.- Shimi Kang, psychiatrist and author

"Freeze, fight or flight in animals might be a deer in headlights, but our freeze is anxiety. We're mentally frozen. We procrastinate. We can't make a decision," explains Kang. "Our fight is we're irritable and angry at the world and ourselves, and our flight is any kind of mental escape. So we drink alcohol, we smoke marijuana, we go shopping or we go on social media."

Kang says the key to counteracting those feelings of isolation is for universities to bring students together ("literally seeing each other's faces and eyeballs"), and encourage genuine social and emotional connection. 

"Even if the goal is academic, when we teach young people emotional skills, social skills, we see better mental health," says Kang, who also recommends educating parents on reducing pressure on their kids.

"I have parents who, when I talk about health or happiness, are like, 'Don't worry, that'll come later. Can you increase the medication?' But when I actually start to connect success with resiliency and creativity and the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, the things we know the workforce wants," she says, "then they start to understand the importance."

Kang says post-secondary students can be especially susceptible to feelings of social isolation and disconnection. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

'We have a responsibility'

Ono says it's hard to compare his experience with what students are experiencing today. On the one hand, they're more free to talk about their mental health struggles; on the other hand, they're facing unprecedented challenges.

"The most profound moment for me was when the president of the student body in the Okanagan campus asked thousands of entering students whether they were optimistic about the future of the world. Only one hand went up, out of thousands," says Ono. "A lot of university students are worried about the future of the world, about their futures. And that is compounded upon what we worried about when we were in university."
 
But is it too much to expect universities to provide mental health services to students? Ono says no, arguing that universities are privileged institutions and can have a role in creating systemic change from the ground up.

"We educate future superintendents. We educate teachers," says Ono. "So I think we have a responsibility. It's not an issue of fairness. It's an issue of standing up to the challenge and being a leader."


Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service:
Toll-free 833-456-4566
Text: 45645
Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca 
In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 866-APPELLE (866-277-3553) 

Kids Help Phone: 
Phone: 800-668-6868
Text: TALK to 686868 (English) or TEXTO to 686868 (French)
Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca 

Post-Secondary Student Helpline:
Phone: 1-866-925-5454 
Good2talk.ca 


Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Anne Penman

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.