That subject line almost made me drop my phone.
Thought one: Who died?
Thought two, a selfish one: Please, let it not be one of my friends.
Email notifications of deaths are not uncommon. Suicide has been on my mind since I set foot on this campus. Even during Quaker Days, as I meandered down Locust with my new Class of 2020 t-shirt, I passed a memorial service for Olivia Kong, a Wharton student who had died by suicide the day prior. "A Message to Penn Students" always scares me when it arrives as a subject line in my email inbox. Seeing it announce the death of our CAPS director shook me.
After every campus death, I reflect on how we can improve our mental health infrastructure and discuss suicide prevention. It is such a nebulous challenge that when our campus talks about what needs to change, we sometimes forget to include the essentials of widespread, community action. Students and professors can offer concrete and meaningful support during crises, support that has helped me remain a member of the Penn community.
My mother begged me not to commit to this school. Having supported me through the tumult of my mental illnesses, she cried as she asked me, "Who is going to look out for you?" I decided to attend Penn anyway. After several years of intensive treatment, I thought that I would survive it.
I am immensely privileged in that I’ve had early access to mental health care — I’ve been in therapy for almost eight years. My parents received special counseling in how to support me. I recognized that I needed a consistent psychologist and a strong support network to handle the move to Philadelphia. Every decision was meticulously finalized prior to coming to Penn’s campus: We called at least 30 psychologists within my insurance network to find the right one. I applied to live in Gregory College House: a small, quiet dorm with a tight-knit community. I submitted documentation to Student Disabilities Services so that I would have accommodations to help me function once I arrived here.
Even with all that planning, I hit major bumps. I once missed a day of classes because I stayed up all night compulsively scrubbing a pot. Therapy prepared me for coping with all of the stressful, triggering situations I’d encounter in college, but even when I knew what the “right” action was treatment-wise, it was incredibly difficult to execute.
I share this to show that staying mentally well is challenging. Even Dr. Gregory Eells, renowned for his work in resiliency, struggled with this. When I learned of his death, I was terrified. How could someone with so much training and experience end his life? What does that mean for the rest of us?
For the past few days, I’ve been carrying these questions around in the back of my brain. Most professors haven’t mentioned it — the University neglected to send them an email notification of Dr. Eells’ death. I have had my own communities reach out to offer support — Penn Wellness, my college house, the Department of Bioengineering. Even then, there are questions which linger in the air: What do we do? What can we say?
As a senior, I have cycled through this period many times. Our campus is alerted to a death by suicide. Some folks ask these questions; we linger on them, or we continue on with our 150-page readings. At Penn, everything passes in small blurs, and it is easy to feel powerless in these situations, to be at a loss for words, to find ourselves saying, "I have no idea what to say or what to feel."
I’m familiar with this. I was nine years old when I first had thoughts of suicide. When I was 12, someone I love said those words to me: "I’ve been thinking about killing myself." Of course, I panicked: I had no training and no idea how I should respond. I did the best thing I could think of: I told them that I loved them. I wrote positive notes. I checked in with them every day. I remained a support to this person for many years, although I faced a lot of uncertainty in how to help. I wasn’t sure of who to trust for advice. Often, there was no one else to speak with about it.
Even now, out in the “adult” world, our conversations shy away from suicide. However, if we don’t make space to talk about it, it remains forgotten. Stigmatized. We sprint off to our 9 a.m.'s without processing our own role in altering the culture around suicide on Penn’s campus.
Dr. Eells’ death has rippled our entire community: faculty, counselors, and students. We should talk about it, and we should not allow stigma to dictate the conversations in our classrooms, our dorm rooms, or the thoughts that run through our heads.
I don’t have all the answers as to what these discussions should look like. But if there’s one thing I can argue for, it’s that every student on this campus should be thinking about suicide prevention. I want to discuss some major points I have learned throughout my life and from my experience working with Project LETS (Let’s Erase the Stigma).
Suicide prevention, like most things, is a pyramid. At its peak is crisis response and prevention. But at its base, we can help by being more empathetic within our communities. If someone is stressed out or crying, sit with them and offer to talk. Pay attention. Let them vent, and don’t interject with how you think they should feel. If someone in your life seems down or is isolating themselves, offer to get dinner with them. Make it known that you are willing to dedicate time to supporting others. I’ve had many panic attacks and felt far less alone in it when my friends bring me a milkshake and sit with me on the couch. Yes, we are all busy, overwhelmingly busy, but we cannot allow the culture of Penn to consume us past the point of knocking on someone’s door and asking how their day went.
Recognize signs of distress and crisis. If your friend hasn’t been acting like themselves, has been missing classes, or hasn’t been getting out of bed, take note and ask them how things are going. Talk with your friends about managing crisis situations, even if they don’t seem likely to occur within your friend group. Ask, if any of your friends were to consider suicide, would they be comfortable communicating that to you? How would they want you to respond?
If someone tells you that they are thinking about suicide, validate their decision to share this. Remain calm. Don’t rush. Make space to discuss their feelings. Suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide, do not necessarily mean a person is going to attempt suicide, but should be taken seriously. Learn to recognize the signs that someone is an imminent threat to themselves. Do they have a plan, or specific course of action to attempt to end their life? Do they have the physical means to do so? Do they have the intent to do so?
When someone is in crisis, the most important thing you can ask is, "How can I help you?"
Some folks are overwhelmed by this question. Some won’t know the answer. That’s okay. You can give easy, straightforward options. You can offer to stay with them for the night if they are feeling unsafe by themselves. If you are concerned for their safety, talk through some options. You could help them call their parents. You could walk them to CAPS. You could call a hotline. You could meet with a trusted adviser. You could walk them to the hospital. Don’t go behind their back; be candid with your concern. If you think that they will attempt suicide, at least notify them that you must involve someone else.
If you are one of the many people on this campus helping to support someone else who is struggling with their mental health, bless you. You are doing compassionate work. Remember that emotional burnout is real, and it isn’t selfish to take space for yourself if you are overwhelmed by supporting another person. Community care is essential — we must create networks of people who we can lean on. If you cannot provide the level of support that someone else needs, be honest about it. Offer to help them find additional outlets and resources. You should not be the lone pillar of support.
Last, understand that suicidal ideation, like most mental illnesses, can be chronic. There isn’t always a linear recovery. It is something that folks learn to cope with. I have lived with a chronic mental illness for the majority of my life, and from what I can tell, it’s going to be with me in some form for the rest of my years. I’m okay with that. I still have bad days, but I’ve developed a lot of coping skills and I’m surrounded by compassionate friends. Having a community to rely on makes it so much easier.
LAUREN DRAKE is a senior studying bioengineering, creative writing, and journalism. She is the chapter co-coordinator of Project LETS (Let's Erase the Stigma) at Penn. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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