Community’s role in supporting survivors of suicide

Survivors’ experiences are often misunderstood.

By Lillian Erickson

One year ago today, I attempted suicide. Those words have been running around my head for the past few weeks as the date has drawn closer. Sometimes my brain slips up, though, and settles upon an alternate phrase: One year ago today, I committed suicide.

For a long time, I thought of it this way and desperately wished it were true. Not because I actually still wish I were dead, but because I so desperately wished I could start my life fresh and new, rising from the ashes of my overdose as a new being with no scars to remind me. After all, the best predictor of eventual suicide is a nonfatal suicide attempt: Approximately 15 percent of people who attempt suicide eventually die from it, according to a 2004 study by Suominen. Suicide seeps into your veins and stays there. Even though I’m no longer suicidal, I still get momentary pangs of remembrance every now and again—my mind jerks back as I’m opening a pill bottle, or when I see an ambulance. I am reminded of my attempt often, and I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a tear or 10 at the (admittedly rare) depictions of suicides in television, theater, or movies. Suicide is not something you can just leave behind.

I don’t think suicide is something that should be left behind, though. I don’t think I should view myself as someone who indeed committed suicide and was reborn. I am of course not advocating self-harm or suicide; I think both are very serious issues that need to be addressed with care and patience by a support system including not only medical professionals, but also friends and family. Suicide needs to be something by which survivors feel empowered: We reached the bottom and came back from it, and with treatment, we can become stronger and louder advocates for others like us to get help.

I also don’t think that suicide should be left behind because every single person is worth the life he or she has, and worth getting treatment in a way that is sensitive to the idea of suicide. This is something I have struggled with, particularly here at the University of Chicago. Being suicidal is not within a person’s control and is not a choice a person makes. It is a medical condition, and it is never too late for treatment and recovery.  However, my first therapist through the Student Counseling Service (SCS), when I confessed my suicidal feelings, took me by the hand and asked me to “promise” her I wouldn’t self-harm. No steps were taken to give me any further help other than unproductive talk therapy that only made me more ashamed and guilty for feeling the way I did, and to my knowledge no other people were notified or made aware of my condition. This is a clear violation of the contract one makes with a mental health professional when one enters treatment: It should be mutually understood that the therapist, psychiatrist, clinical social worker, or other person in the field has a responsibility to provide the full extent of services that are needed for recovery.

To be fair, this was not my experience last year with SCS; since my first therapist, I have visited with several different doctors, with mostly positive results. However, it is inexcusable that any mental health professional who is unable to provide the services required to save lives is employed at the University.

When I was at the mental hospital, there were seven students from UChicago, whereas DePaul, SAIC, and Northwestern only had one student each. While the disproportionately high number of UChicago students may not be indicative of a general trend in the University, it is certainly a striking disparity compared to other Chicago-area universities. What is it about this university that caused such a high number of suicide attempts? Surely the fact that the suicide rate doubles among young adults aged 20–24 compared to younger adolescents means the prevention of suicide and self-harm should be an extremely high priority for the University. But it doesn’t seem to be. We are subjected to extreme stress, and yet the student body promotes a self-deprecating culture, as if unhappiness and depression are the natural state of a University of Chicago student. This is an extremely dangerous mindset to promote. Of course resources are made available, and are promoted to some degree; however, it still remains stigmatized in the community to utilize these services and be a happy, fulfilled individual rather than the apparently quintessential miserable University of Chicago student.

The survivors of suicide attempts and our allies need to address not only the underlying causes of depression and the risks associated with being a young person with changing brain chemistry, but also the problems with the way our community handles mental illness, promotes unhappiness as the norm, and goes about treating depression. I myself am stepping forward to say that I am a victim of what this culture can produce, but I don’t want to remain one. As taboo as mental illness is, we cannot afford to lose any more of the bright, creative, and beautiful minds that populate this school.

Lillian Erickson is a second-year in the College.