“Help,” a powerful and terrifying word. At the College of William & Mary – a “public ivy” university known for its intense rigor – I was in classrooms with some of the brightest thinkers in the nation. While my peers came from an array of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, one thing was true for many of them: they were overachievers and perfectionists and many were afraid to ask for help.
The signs weren’t always very clear, but few people ever talked about it. Going to the counseling center was taboo among students, for fear of being forced to leave school. People often suffered in silence. And because of that silence, our campus lost four students to suicide during my four years at the College. It’s important to note that almost all who die by suicide are suffering from an mental disorder, most commonly depression. According to AFSP, “90% of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.” Thus, it is absolutely critical that mental illnesses are identified and treated as soon as possible. If an individual with a mental disorder does not seek treatment, he or she is at-risk and more likely to attempt suicide when going through a stressful time.
On August 25th, my alma mater lost another member of the Tribe. Peter Godshall, 21, was approaching his senior year at the College. He was found by the Crim Dell Bridge after his apparent suicide. As a history and finance major, Peter was also quite active on-campus. He was an officer in Beta Theta Pi fraternity and played club lacrosse. He will be sorely missed.
As a recent W&M alumna, I recall the rigors of life on-campus. I remember how many of my close friends struggled to maintain absolute perfection. In an environment where everyone was used to being the standout student prior to attending college, it’s no wonder that we all pushed ourselves – not just to compete, but to survive.
It’s strange to think that this was the mentality I carried for some time. I remember I’d be so comfortable working on a paper or studying for ten hours straight in the library – and that was in between midterm and final seasons. If I wasn’t busy, I would be sure to fill it up with extracurricular activities and on-campus jobs. I’d submit carefully crafted applications so I could secure limited spots on Spring Break service trips. I worked tirelessly on grant applications so I could complete service projects during the summer. If I wasn’t doing anything “productive,” I felt less than mediocre. It wasn’t until I got my severely needed reality check during my junior year that I realized there was more to life than achievement and responsibility. The part I had been missing was actually living.
After encouragement from a supportive professor, I sought help at the Counseling Center – a resource I honestly didn’t think to take advantage of during my previous years at the College. During one particular session with my guidance counselor, I was asked me what I liked to do to de-stress. I was dumbfounded. I did not have a single answer. I recalled how I had grown up as an arts kid – I went to a great performing arts school where I learned to knit in the 5th grade and entered in essay contests as if it were part of breathing – and yet I had come to a point where academic and professional success consumed me.
It was time to resort my priorities. I couldn’t change my ways over night, so I decided to start small. After performing some of my poetry in a campus panel surrounding the state of mental health on campus, I realized that writing was a hobby I had to revisit.
So, to demonstrate art as an alternative to therapy, I started an explorative poetry project in which I wrote a poem every single day for over a year. It started as a personal project, but on Day 100, I decided to create an online website for my work so it could be accessible to friends, family and the world. Instead of hiding my struggles, I began to ask others to help me make sense of said struggles, but in a constructive way.
What’s interesting is that throughout the project, I regularly received emails from people telling me that my work really resonated with them. By opening myself to the community in a creative way, I found strength. Poetry had even become a vessel to invite others to share their story.
Today, we are nearing the end of National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14, 2014) and I can’t help but think that one week is not enough. During this week, many organizations and initiatives (such as AFSP, TWLOHA and WageBeauty) have blasted social media with depression awareness and suicide prevention. The bottom line, however, is that these organizations are urging members of society to speak up.
Seeking help is important. If you are, or someone you know is, struggling with depression or other mental health concerns, do not be afraid to get help. There are many warning signs and risk factors surrounding mental health and suicide. As members of a global community, it is each of our responsibility to educate ourselves and seek treatment, be it for ourselves or for a loved one. Taking action, even if it’s just a small step, just might save a life.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available 24 hours a day by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.