Thin-faced, unsmiling, slightly hunched over and ears akimbo, Akash Wadhwa stares out from the last available photo of him. A young boy, bullied, troubled and suicidal who turned to his best friend for support. He told Kiran Nijjar he wanted to kill himself and she tried to get him help.
In the end, on Sept. 16, he succeeded in killing them both, a murder-suicide that now has friends and family asking whether the school system could have done more.
According to kids at Mississauga Secondary, where both teens were students, the school was aware of Wadhwa’s suicide threats. Some accuse teachers and principals of not doing more to prevent the Friday morning tragedy.
Paramjit Nijjar, Kiran’s father, said she told him Wadhwa had gone to a guidance counsellor for help.
“If someone knew something, they should have done something,” he told the Star in an interview. “If the school knew, if anyone else knew . . . If his friends knew he would do something like this, they should have helped to avoid this.”
Wadhwa’s death, along with the murder of his friend, is one among a recent string of teen suicides in Ontario: Daron Richardson, 14, daughter of Ottawa Senators’ assistant coach Luke Richardson, a year ago; Mitchell Wilson, 11, in Pickering last month; and more recently, Jamie Hubley, the 15-year-old Ottawa teen who was bullied for being gay.
Before his death, Hubley chronicled his battle with depression on his Tumblr blog.
“I’m tired of life really. It’s so hard, I’m sorry, I can’t take it anymore,” he wrote. It was the final message in a long series of notes related to suicide and cutting.
The deaths, seen by some as preventable, call into question the school system’s role in dealing with the mental health of its young charges.
In Ontario, the Ministries of Education, Health, and Child and Youth Services, as well as various community partners, all share the responsibility for child and youth mental health. But studies and government-backed strategies introduced in recent years have focused more specifically on the school system’s role.
In December 2008, the family of Jordan Gallant filed a $2.45-million lawsuit against the Thames Valley District school board and a teacher for negligence after the 17-year-old committed suicide earlier that year. According to the family, less than two weeks before his death Gallant submitted a short story to his Grade 12 teacher that said he was distraught over a breakup and wanted to kill himself.
The board and teacher deny the allegations, which have not been proven in court.
Jim Van Buskirk, chief social worker for the Peel District School Board, said schools are required to contact a student’s parent or guardian when a threat to commit suicide is made. The student would then be referred to a mental health facility if the threat was deemed serious.
In Wadhwa’s case, the school abided by the Peel board’s protocols when Wadhwa’s troubles became known, officials said. (Wadhwa’s family could not be reached for comment.)
“There was nothing else this school could have possibly done,” said board spokesperson Brian Woodland. “Everything that could be done was done.”
Most other Mississauga Secondary students were in class when Wadhwa signed onto Facebook and wrote his goodbye message.
“My one main reason I did this is that life let me down way too much . . . too all my haters, are you happy now?” he wrote. He called the police before jumping from a bridge onto Highway 401.
Less than an hour later, Peel police would find Nijjar, 17, strangled to death in a nearby ravine. Police refused to confirm how she died but a source told the Star she was strangled. Wadhwa was rushed to hospital and died two days later.
As investigators continue to piece together details of the Friday morning incident, Paramjit Nijjar is left grappling with the loss of his only daughter at the hands of her troubled best friend.
“We are in sorrow for our loss,” he said. “What happened, why it happened, I don’t know nothing yet,” he said. He described his daughter as a good person. “We know that she was brilliant and she would have contributed to society much more than the average person.”
Suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths of 15- to 24-years-olds in Canada — one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD. It is the second leading cause of death, after car accidents, for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24.
Nearly half of Canadians’ mental health problems are apparent by age 14 and the school system is seen as a critical player in early identification and prevention.
Teachers, because they are with students six hours a day, are “in a good position to . . . notice kids who may be in distress,” said Kathy Short, a psychologist for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.
But mental health is a “community responsibility” and teachers should not be the front-line workers, she said.
“We don’t want teachers to have to become diagnosticians,” agreed Van Buskirk, the Peel board’s chief social worker. “That’s not fair or appropriate for them. They have their plates full.”
Canadian pediatrician Dr. Richard Goldbloom, in a 2006 Senate committee report on mental health, referred to schools as “the most underdeveloped site for effective health care of any in the country.” He called for more mental health services in “children’s natural habitat.”
But schools suffer a lack of resources.
For example, the Peel board has one social worker for every four or five schools. Van Buskirk called it a big task for social workers, adding “we try and prioritize and provide services best we can.”
Once a student is referred, it can take up to 18 months to get a mental health assessment in Ontario, said Steve Lurie, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
In response to calls for more resources, the province in June announced a $257-million investment that promises more nurses and mental health workers in publicly funded schools to help struggling youth.
Another challenge is training. A 2010 report on Ontario’s publicly funded schools said “teachers are often the first people to whom youth turn for help” but “(they) have very low levels of knowledge about mental health issues, and mental health has not been a priority for professional development.”
The Ontario College of Teachers Act does not require teachers to receive mental health training before entering the classroom. However, some boards are taking the initiative. Last week the Durham school boards announced a new curriculum to teach teachers about mental illness in youth, funded by the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby.
“There’s a sense of need and frustration that (teachers) could be better equipped,” said Ian Manion, executive director at the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health.
Manion said the politics of school boards and ministries often impede progress, but he hopes that is changing. “There’s an appreciation that we need to build systems better,” he said. “Schools have huge potential . . . It’s a resource that has not been tapped to its fullest potential.”
In the days following the Mississauga murder-suicide, students and teachers gathered near the ravine where Nijjar’s body was found.
One friend who asked not to be named said Wadhwa had been struggling since the summer, but the friend didn’t know what was causing his anguish. “He told me he would tell me, but he didn’t end up telling me,” the friend said. He insisted Wadhwa was a good kid, but “life just got the worse of him.”
A family friend, who hosted Wadhwa — then a toddler — and his family for several years when they first moved to Montreal from India, said they went through major financial and personal turmoil in recent years.
The father had moved back to India a few years ago, “abandoning” Wadhwa and his mother, the family friend said. Wadhwa’s mother filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and the pair moved from a house into a cramped basement apartment in Brampton.
Kiran’s father, meanwhile, is still waiting for answers.
He has yet to be contacted by the school and is still waiting for details of what happened that Friday from police.
The only thing to do from here, he said, is let people know about what happened and inform them about issues like teen suicide.
“If a person is sick, he should be treated. Whatever the disease he has, he should be treated.”