Making sense of suicide without blaming the university

Last week, my prof opened class with the Peer Support Centre webpage on the projector. The following chat, which was delivered incredibly well and concisely, rendered the room into darkness — if only for one second — before the lecture carried on, as is procedure.

Our campus conversation on mental health seems to have hit the same point as gun laws in the USA. To paraphrase President Obama: tragedy is becoming routine, and so is our response.

There is, however, a distinction between the issues of gun regulation and mental health. Gun regulation is fairly straightforward to fix. Regulate guns. Mental health, on the other hand, is incredibly difficult.

In his novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace describes why:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

In 2008, Wallace took his own life while fighting depression. We know well that one cannot be simply “poked” out of depression. Yet, I struggle to see the difference between saying, “just be happy” and “get help, call the line,” which is a phrase we seem to reiterate mechanically. The amount that we yell from the sidewalk is dangerously underestimated.

According to the CMHA, once depression is recognized, getting help “can make a difference” for 80 per cent of people, who will then return to day-to-day activities. Thus it looks like the problem can be solved if people with depression simply get help. But “getting help” doesn’t equate to “having access” to programs and support: there’s an ocean-wide gorge in between, if you have such an illness, which is called actually taking the step.

I read a reaction on Facebook last week. The criticism was directed at the university, which, it was said, doesn’t offer enough student mental health services. While this may be the case, the real problem is the gorge. No amount of signage or beckoning or money can fix this.

We should stop blaming institutions — which can only do so much with their means — and start looking toward ourselves as students, friends, colleagues. This means we should engage more with one another on a face-to-face level; i.e. we should not assume that those who need help will seek it out themselves. As university students, this is incredibly hard to do, given the academic battleground on which we sweat daily. It is incredibly hard to look out for one another — and this is sad, but true, because the game is rigged such that individual well-being outperforms caring for others categorically.

Despite this, those on the sidewalk should take the first step, even if it’s into a burning building. If you notice something wrong, the responsibility has become yours to follow through, even if that requires losing X percent on some assignment that you’ll ultimately forget about, say, two weeks later. Fine, maybe four weeks. The assumption has to be that nobody will help except you; that you’re the only other person within miles.