From the moment she walked into my classroom, I saw a little bit too much of myself in her. She was an introverted junior transfer, struggling to find a place for herself in a new school, in a new state. Over the course of the first semester, I got to know her through her writing and she frequented my classroom after school. While I have several former students who I remain close to, I normally try to maintain a healthy professional distance. That changed with Katie*.
It was a relationship that forced me to flash back nearly 20 years to the Tuesday after junior prom. That afternoon I sat on my bed, shocked tears streaming down my face, trying to comprehend, trying to understand why.
My friend Mike was dead. No, not just dead—he ended his own life. And from the numerous phone calls that took place that week, it was clear that no one understood why one of the most likeable guys in our graduating class decided to end it all. Just the week before, he had written an upbeat note on a letter that a friend was composing to me in their math class. That letter never got to me.
It didn’t make sense.
The summer before junior year, my family moved from Wyoming to Michigan. For most of the school year, I had been struggling to find a definite purpose in my life. I spent the week of Mike’s death going through the motions and mourning alone, over a thousand miles away from my grieving friends.
Every April, I silently commemorate the moment that I became fully aware of my own mortality. Death was nothing new, but the violent death of a friend crippled my ability to believe life really was good. Like many teens, I wondered—however briefly—if my friend had indeed had the right idea. But I also had a new awareness of the wide-reaching impact of suicide.
Fast-forward to a couple years ago when those never-quite-buried memories came flooding back, the closer I got to Katie. We had a lot in common, but where I had suffered through depression tied to my circumstances, her experiences were amplified by a broken brain chemistry that couldn’t handle the mix of emotions triggered by being uprooted and forced to deal with the changes of one set of friendships while attempting to navigate new relationships. It was a difficult task for a studious introvert more comfortable sitting alone in a practice room with her violin than interacting with peers she barely recognized from her whirlwind of seven class periods. After several months, for the first time ever I found myself in a guidance counselor’s office explaining to a sobbing student—who saw me as one of the only trusted adults in her life—that we needed to call and tell her parents just how close she was to ending her own life.
As a country, we have become more aware of mental health issues, and more open to discussing the depression and anxiety that leads many American teenagers to attempt or successfully commit suicide. While that awareness is to be commended, most quantifiable mental health research is being done with adults, not with teenagers. And even the studies with adults are pretty limited.
When Robin Williams committed suicide a couple years ago, it opened up a lot of social media discussion about depression awareness, but that awareness comes and goes. Most people see suicide as a problem for young adults, but the suicide rates actually go up as people get older. It is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with the largest group being middle-aged men.
In my smaller, sometimes more narrow Christian world, I see far too many people shy away from the topic because it raises complicated spiritual questions as well. Instead of carefully weaving together religious and psychological study, religious communities would rather ignore that the problem exists or attempt half-hearted spiritual answers as opposed to real solutions, until it is too late.
And let’s be honest, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning the afterlife, discussing death makes people uncomfortable. Add to that discussion of someone taking his or her own life, and people would like to avoid it altogether. For years, as a student and then as an educator, I heard administrative fears of copycat behavior if there was open discussion about suicide. But that doesn’t mean students aren’t already thinking about it.
Suicide is simultaneously glorified and vilified in pop culture and the media, current discussion taking off into hyperdrive with the recent Netflix release of 13 Reasons Why. But while literature and films may temporarily spark conversations between friends, co-workers, and parents and children, it is still an uncomfortably taboo subject in American English.
We talk about suicide. We joke about suicide. Our cultural obsession with taking one’s life extends to our lexicon when, out of our frustrations we exclaim “I want to hang myself” or “I want to shoot myself”—never thinking about the effect those words will have on those who have personally experienced the consequences of those actions. Even as someone who is highly sensitive to the issue, I find those phrases so easy to say before I feel the pang of regret for even joking about it.
Suicide is no joke. It is a topic to be discussed openly and honestly, with compassion. We shouldn’t judge those who depend on medication to keep their emotions balanced. We should listen carefully to those who are struggling with even the little things because those are often the tip of the iceberg. And we should stop treating therapy like it is the last resort of “crazy” people.
Thankfully, Katie is currently finishing her freshman year of college. There are still meetings with a psychiatrist, there is still medication to take, and she has to carefully navigate a world full of triggers that every now and then send her into a spiral. But through all the difficulty, she is alive, and anyone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts knows just how much of a victory that is.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on suicide from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.