Suicide is not a laughing matter

By Joe Katz

And so we come to the holiest day of the U of C’s winter calendar: Suicide Prevention Day. Sure, it’s technically called Undergraduate Break Day, but no student has ever said that phrase without a wink. The idea that we get one day off in the dead of February to avoid the bad publicity of bodies hanging off of the Hull Gate gargoyles is a campus-wide joke.

Unfortunately, that’s all that Suicide Prevention Day is to the students here: a joke. An uncouth joke to be sure, but a joke nonetheless. We demonstrate no awareness of just how real a risk self-destruction is for many of those around us. Nothing could be more emblematic of our attitude as a society and as a university community toward depression and its most serious consequence.

Needless to say, we have plenty of other emblems to choose from. Our persistent tendency to minimize this disease comes through constantly: in our dismissal of those who suffer from it as going through “some drama,” in our casual references to skipping classes after a midterm as taking “a mental health day,” in our frustration with those of our peers who seem unable to get over their “little issues.” We are unable to conceptualize the unrelenting torture that chronic depression really is.

This isn’t just a matter of political correctness. Our societal ignorance stigmatizes the victims, and in doing so silences those who might be saved by talking. What message are depressives supposed to get from those sportswriters who haughtily condemned long-time manic depressive Ricky Williams as a strung-out druggie for his marijuana use? Even more dangerously, what should they take away from those wide-eyed opponents of drug therapy who plaintively ask if a world where Vincent Van Gogh’s pain was alleviated by Prozac would really be a better place? Why should Williams be criticized for doing whatever he can to take the edge off of his agony? Would Van Gogh really rather have suffered for his greatness than achieved contentment at the expense of his creative edge?

This phenomenon feeds the culture of shame that surrounds depression. Too many of us see the “mental” in mental illness as a qualifier, unable to grasp that the fact that “it’s all in your head” doesn’t make it any less real. Only smoking-related lung cancer, alcoholism, and AIDS have more of an aura of blame attached to the victims. As if their misery was not bad enough, depressives are bombarded with the message that their problem is their own responsibility. We see it as the result of weakness of will and mind. After all, if it’s mental, you should be able to logically convince yourself that your life really is OK. And if you can’t, isn’t that your fault?

The costs of these attitudes are horrifying. We put the victims of this cruel disease in a position where they feel the need to hide it, unable to explain it and afraid they will be judged for it. They feel like failures, like they should be able to handle it on their own, like they have no one to go to who gets what they’re going through. So they keep quiet, though talking to a professional or to a friend could start them on the road to recovery. It’s a vicious feedback loop, the darkest of downward spirals. If other people can take care of themselves, what the hell is your problem?

Your problem is that you are being brutalized by something overwhelming and all-consuming. Your problem is that you feel like you’re drowning with every step you take, and something far stronger than you is holding your head beneath the surface of the water. Your problem is spikes of physical pain in your head and your heart that never seem to go away. Your problem is a paralyzing absence of energy and hope. Your problem is not that you don’t understand how lucky you are, and that you’re not thinking logically—your problem is that you have been robbed of the capacity to think logically. Your problem is that you are being slowly destroyed by your own brain, and sometimes you want to do something, anything, to make it stop—even if it’s just speeding up the process. Your problem is that there comes a point when no Hell could possibly be worse than what you’re already experiencing. Your problem is so complete as to be practically incomprehensible to one who has not been through it. And it’s only made worse because you don’t feel like anyone wants you to try.

This is the nightmare from which many of those around us cannot awake.

According to Student Counseling and Resource Services (SCRS) Director Tom Kramer, as many as one out of seven members of the student body seek treatment with SCRS annually. Approximately 800 are diagnosed with mild to severe depression. An untold number never report the issue, and these numbers have been steadily climbing. Why don’t we think that’s important?

We get this Friday off from classes as a little gift from the administration. Unlike on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there will be nothing official that allows us to reflect on its meaning. But this is a smart campus, and it should not be too taxing for us to do it ourselves. The time for a fundamental change in attitude is long overdue. Let us begin here.