Send Silence Packing: A Call to Action
It’s been about two weeks now since Active Minds laid out 1,100 backpacks on the lawn of Olin Library to represent the 1,100 college students who die by suicide every year in America. Having spent four months planning and envisioning this event, we can’t imagine what it must have been like to be going about your business—walking to class, to the gym or to Pi-Café—and to have been bombarded by such a striking visual. To the members of Active Minds, this event meant four months of planning and preparation, hoping that this event would help open the discussion on mental health at Wesleyan. However, to students simply passing it must have been visually stunning and even somewhat shocking. To quote Jonathan Z. Smith, one of the Religion Department’s favorite scholars, “Incongruity gives rise to thought.”
Even two weeks later, the incongruity of seeing 1,100 backpacks on the lawn where you’ve walked thousands of times must still linger. The image forces people to put that number—1,100—into perspective. Imagine Wesleyan’s entire freshman class, plus half of its sophomore class, simply gone. Even more jarring, perhaps, is how widespread the thought of suicide is: 1 out of every 10 college students has seriously contemplated suicide within the past year. Among young adults aged 15-24, for every completed suicide there are an estimated 100-200 suicide attempts. Almost half of all college students report being so depressed at some point that they could not function. Look around –at Usdan, on the hill, in Olin–chances are that some of the people around you are suffering in silence. At present there are 124 Wesleyan students on medical leave because of mental health issues, and each semester a handful of Wesleyan students attempt suicide on campus.
One of the authors of this article (Molly) experienced this firsthand: a year and a half ago, just two months into my junior year, I attempted suicide by overdosing on pills in my dorm at Wesleyan. This came as a shock to my friends and family, because I hadn’t expressed the suicidal thoughts that had been tormenting me for months: I suffered in silence. Fortunately, my attempt did not succeed, and I was taken to Middlesex Hospital and placed in the Behavioral Health inpatient unit. Upon my arrival, a staff psychiatrist told me that I was one of a dozen Wesleyan students so far that year who had spent time in the unit for mental illness. I had no idea so many other Wesleyan students were suffering like I was, because no one ever talked about it. And this was only November: how many more Wesleyan students found themselves in a similar situation by the end of that year?
There are as many different ways to suffer as there are individuals affected. The other author of this piece (Jenn) experienced the profound effects of mental illness early in her sophomore year: I became so anxious and depressed that I didn’t think I could go on. Had it not been for the support of my friends and family, who encouraged me to take time off from school and seek treatment, I think the pain and shame of suffering from a mental illness would have overcome me. The problem is real, and alarmingly widespread.
However, help exists. There are things we can all do to help break the silence, to encourage everyone who needs help to get help. First of all, get educated about mental illness. Active Minds has tons of resources on their website (www.activeminds.org), as does CAPS (www.wesleyan.edu/caps). Learn the signs of depression and other mental illnesses in yourself and in others. Be careful with your language. Recognize that when you say someone is “crazy” or “psycho,” you are contributing to the stigma of mental illness. Talk to your friends about depression and mental illness. If you are concerned about a friend, don’t wait for them to speak: let them know you are there for them, and encourage them to seek help. People who are depressed often feel worthless, so reminding someone that they are important to you can make all the difference. You don’t have to be an expert on mental illness to help a friend in distress: just letting someone know they are not alone can be a huge source of comfort.
If you are feeling depressed, tell your friends and family and seek treatment. Above all, realize that you won’t feel like this forever, but that getting help can ease your pain and even save your life. Sign up next fall to become part of the Student Support Network, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program. Be part of Active Minds’ new “Mental Health Advisor” program next fall, and become a mental health resource for fellow students. Encourage the administration to speak more openly about mental health issues at Wesleyan. Many people feel, rightly so, that the administration swept Nora Miller’s suicide under the rug. We think President Roth should be concerned with making Wesleyan—supposedly a beacon and refuge for freethinking individuals—a model community, which openly addresses mental health issues. Perhaps President Roth can use his influence (and his blog) to discuss how Wesleyan promotes students’ mental health, just as he discusses Wesleyan’s academic and athletic successes.
We don’t pretend that suicide is always easily preventable, or that mental illness is easy to understand. Despite our best efforts, sometimes we lose people, which does not mean that anyone is at fault. We don’t yet completely understand the causes of mental illness: there is still much disagreement in the scientific and medical communities over the biological model of mental illness, and many believe environmental factors play a role as well. However, this doesn’t mean that we are powerless: everyone who suffers deserves compassion, whether or not you believe they suffer from a diagnosable medical condition. So Wesleyan, we challenge you to send silence packing. Reach out. Seek help. Talk about mental illness. We promise you, these are the kinds of conversations that save lives.
Lamberg, Lynne. (2006). Experts Work to Prevent College Suicides. Journal of the American Medical Association. 296(5), 502-504 CDC (2009). Suicide Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed on April 23, 2012. <http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/>
Depression. Active Minds. Accessed on April 23, 2012. <http://www.activeminds.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=36&Itemid=326>
Foxworth is a member of the class of 2012 and Pollan is a member of the class of 2013.