As these two different articles show, suicide among college students is a varied and complex problem. The issue has even come to a head, with suicide rates rising among college students every year since 2007. The question of how to work with this reality and what to do about it is something that Here/Hear hopes to have, at least, an inkling of what to do. It is also worth noting that not all suicide comes about due to mental illness: rather, pressure and the like can lead to suicide. But, Here/Hear offers safe places of help for people experiencing thoughts of suicide and self-harm. We believe that our program works as effectively with those suffering schizophrenia as suicidal thoughts and/or self-harm (and the goal is not to negate anyone’s feelings or hurts or problems).
Many students are actually like myself. They go to college as people that achieve their goals, or have goals to achieve. I was different in that my mental illness had already become a factor in my life. However, many people do not develop their mental illness until they are 18 or older. This means that just as people are moving away from the safety of home they are also experiencing the changes that come with a mind that betrays you due to its own illness. This began to happen to me my first semester of college. If you talk to my parents, they saw it happening even before I left. And when they dropped me off, I was severely depressed. It was not so much from them leaving as a host of things; and I have bipolar 2 disorder, which can make new experiences and things quite sucky for me.
As my first semester went on, things got worse and worse. I actually drove my girlfriend away: she actually said she couldn’t be with me anymore because I was such a miserable person (something I’ve come to experience at other times). And suicidal thoughts became my constant companion. And all suicidal thoughts are different. I’ve had suicidal thoughts and ideation since I can remember. However, in my first semester of college the things I thought about doing to myself were only appropriate in a horror movie where the perpetrator and the victim are the same person. I never acted though; and this still astonishes me to this day because every thought and desire was to die and that feeling was so strong.
This is where the college experience of having mental illness starts to get really weird. First, when I came back second semester, I knew I needed help. My few friends also knew I needed help and they encouraged me to find it (including a girl I was using at the time – the things that I did still make me feel shame). I emailed the psychology department who had “nationally recognized counseling faculty.” However, the department said I needed to see the counseling department in the Student Services section of the school. I had no idea what I was doing and went along. When I got there, I noticed that I actually scared the hell out of the guy. I was at a Christian university and he was frightened at what I was telling him. He had no idea what to do and I recognized it. He was out of his depth but this was the only place on campus where there was help for someone like me. I later came to realize that his specialty was in school counseling and career counseling, not mental health. A problem a number of schools have today and a lie that is often perpetuated – a school counselor or a guidance counselor is not a mental health professional and should not treat you for such. They can do intervention but should not be a long term solution.
My counselor sent me to the Student Health Center. There I encountered the nurse-practitioner at the school. Now, her job was usually to prescribe medicine for various ailments college students usually get. We had gotten to know each other, though, because my first semester, with my depression, I started having gall bladder issues and was in intense pain and couldn’t hold food down. No doctors or tests could figure it out, so I saw her a lot asking her to help. When I saw her again, I’m sure she was a tad confused. But, I was there for antidepressants. Now, this was a problem. The counselor said that I sounded bipolar but that I definitely had depression and we should treat that. He told that to the nurse-practitioner and she didn’t contradict that. So, I was treated for major depression; however, when you treat a bipolar person for major depression it can be like giving them meth as it drives mania. This happened to me. I stopped sleeping and drove everybody nuts for about 6 months. And I wrote a novel, began playing bass guitar, and started an ungodly amount of projects that never came to fruition (or got past the first page or two).
My mania got to be so bad that when I got back to school in the fall, I told my counselor and the nurse-practitioner that I was going to stop taking it (actually, being bipolar, I had already stopped taking it, but they didn’t need to know that; and, if you didn’t know it, bipolar people are notorious for not taking their meds). They protested but I wasn’t going to take it. And there was no follow-up. There was no counseling. There was no support group. There was nothing. There was only people encouraging me, at this Christian university, to pray more and to not let “Satan’s attacks” get to me. There was nothing catching me when I was going to fall. And right now, I am teaching a class online and about 40% either have a mental illness or are the caregiver for someone with a mental illness. When I tell them about our program, they are excited because it does offer that hope, that place where they can fall and someone will pick them up.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that colleges can do a lot of good for the mentally ill as well. I know people at other universities that have gotten excellent mental health care and counseling, being prescribed the right drugs and followed up with in an appropriate way. But, I think that we can do better and that Here/Hear can help.
First, the advocacy work of Here/Hear in its attempt to destigmatize mental illness is important and gives a voice to the feelings and experiences of those people who often feel as though they should not be heard. In telling stories and showing the normalcy of mental illness, we can change minds. And we do this through our multimedia presentations, through our creative outlets, and the like.
Second, we can help colleges put in place peer-to-peer support groups that are safe and open to all. These groups are not built upon anything other than mutually lifting each other up. We are different, though, in that we utilize meditation/mindfulness and serious reflection for action.
Third, we do offer creative space. One of the hall marks of our presentations will be the ability of students and friends to create a unique work of art that we can then present to the school or to a student. We also have room on our website and other social media places to post music, videos, stories, etc.
And, fourth, we can help the leadership of the school, including faculty and administration, to be honest with their own mental illness. If we take University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono as an example, we see the impact that a high-ranking college official can make simply by telling his or her own story. Imagine if faculty told these stories in class, if we examined some of the great artists and poets through their mental illness, if we began to see things differently. I know that, as a professor myself, my students’ lives and my own have been enriched and our scopes widened by talking of our experiences openly and honestly in the classroom.
In all, we want to come onto campuses and we want to help. We want to offer great, proven services to the entire university family. We believe that in so doing, lives can be saved, can be bettered, and that the stigmas surrounding mental illness can be broken down.