“For the average human being to maintain optimal mental health, we each need a minimum of 16 hugs a day.”
– A Professor
Suicide is the scariest topic in the world, at least for most people I meet. It’s surprising, really, considering how much it is a part of my generation’s existence. Just the other day, I overheard a conversation in my college dining hall in which a young woman stated that she would “rather jump off the chapel roof, face first, than take this chemistry exam”. I assumed she was joking, since her partner in conversation laughed at this statement. However, having just spent half the night trying to track down the writer of an anonymous suicide note, I found this hyperbole far from entertaining.
The college that I attend has many official social media pages for prospective students to gander at, but the one that concerns current students is one not at all sanctioned by the school, the Confessions page. This is a cyber site on Facebook where anyone, with the help of Google Docs, can post anonymously about crushes or how terrible our cafeteria food is. The post that held everyone’s interest last week though, was one of a more serious nature. A student, who’s identity still remains anonymous to the public, posted his/her suicide note. The post stated that this person was tired of feeling “like a freak”, tired of “dealing with people”, and that “not even eight years of therapy had changed these feelings”.
This post was brought to my attention an hour after it had originally gone up, seven people had commented on the post already, yet I was the first to contact our campus police. I spent my Friday night, from 11pm to 1:30am, helping campus police locate the person who wrote this anonymous post. I won’t even get into how unhelpful Facebook was in this emergency, except to say that the phone number they give out for such emergencies does not actually work and they never answered the email we sent even though the tagline was “Suicide Emergency, Please Help”. Around four in the morning, I received an email from campus police thanking me for my help and informing me that with help from Google, they had found the person in question and that this person was now in a safe place and receiving the help that they needed. I can’t help but wonder, though, if this person actually is.
I’m concerned because another suicide attempt was made on this campus in the following week. I’m twenty years old and educated quite liberally in the humanitarian arts but I cannot understand what is going on. Why is it that my generation is plagued with what I deem an epidemic of self hate, self mutilation, and suicide? And why is it that no one will talk about it? The CDC’s official website states that “For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year.” And yet, the therapists employed at our on-campus counseling center merely ask two questions when one comes in for help: they ask if one is feeling suicidal and if one is feeling homicidal. Answer yes to the latter, it’s off to secure custody. Answer yes to the former and it’s off to our local hospital for observation, and that’s if the counselors have time to see you. Even the people specifically trained to handle these situations, to help out, are too scared of suicide to actually do any good. It doesn’t help that their hands are tied by procedures meant to avoid liability costs to the college. The institution’s reputation comes before the student’s well being as always.
The CDC also states that besides completed suicides, one of their “ nationwide survey(s) of youth in grades 9–12 in public and private schools in the United States (U.S.) found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reported trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.” When I was in high school, I participated in a two day seminar on suicide prevention run by the UMatter organization based in Vermont. Even there I was shocked at the coldness and the calculated moves that emanated from our binders and our instructor’s mouth. Is this really all that can be done for our youth? It seems to me that all this fear is perpetuating a society that makes suicide into a cultural norm, something that we turn to in despair because all the other options are filled with strangers in white coats who don’t ever seem to care about anything one has to say.
The most I have ever learned about suicide I learned not from seminars or from speaking to doctors, but from having survived it myself. I have not had, by any means, the worst life in the world, but I have experienced more loss than anyone should have to. Knowing how it felt to be that low has helped me help others, and I now look on that point in my life as another learning experience, albeit a painful one. I put my experience forward here in hopes that it is evidence to the potential power of good people, for it was not a hospital, a stranger in a white coat, or even prescription pills that helped me, but mere people who were not afraid to touch me or talk to me for fear they would catch my “mental disease”.
After someone tries to take their own life, I am often asked why they did it or why they didn’t ask for help. The answers are always hard to give because no one can really truly know why someone who’s suicide was completed killed themselves, even if they left a note. And while there are those who show no signs, often times the victim did ask for help and the outcome could have been prevented if the people surrounding them weren’t too scared to believe what they were seeing. Too often, cries for help are ignored or hushed out of fear and the thought that not acknowledging these feelings will make them go away. The reason why I write this piece is that I know what I went through, I know what my friends have gone through, and I even know what the anonymous poster on the Confessions page must have felt, and I can only hope that she/he got the help that was needed. However, given my extensive knowledge of the processes involved in situations like this, I find it hard to believe that anyone is getting the help they need, partly due to institutions not willing to risk their reputations and partly due to society romanticizing suicide and leading people to believe that asking for help makes them weak.
What happened to me, and to countless others I have known, is that fear got in the way of our treatment. I understand the fear that people feel when they hear that someone is suicidal, but it’s important to realize that the people with these feelings are just as scared, if not more. The average person does not try to kill themselves because they’re insane, or selfish, or a coward. The average person tries to kill themselves because they are completely and totally miserable and feel that they are a burden to their friends and family or simply not wanted. Further more, the human body is programmed for one thing above all: to survive. In order for someone to take their own life, they require such will, such courage, that they can override that basic need.
In a day and age where celebrities publicly overdose and college students run themselves into the ground in order to get the good grades without which they are seen as nothing in this society, I truly believe that suicide has become not only a cultural norm, but an epidemic as well. And when responses to anonymous suicide posts on Facebook receive comments such as, “Whoever let this post go up is f***ed up. This person obviously isn’t serious and only wants attention”, then the reason for this epidemic is hard to miss. I write this piece as a plea for people, everywhere, to remember that words have power, that no matter how many times our parents drummed into our heads that only sticks and stones could break our bones, we are a generation brought up in a world where an exit from pain is just a bottle of pills away. Words of hope and love can have just as strong an impact as those of hate. It’s up to everyone to change this part of our culture that has made itself a home in the halls of high schools, college dormitories, and cyber sites. What is necessary to end this epidemic is for more people to take the time to empathize with one another and to try to cure their fear with knowledge.