Message to Students (TW/CW: Suicide, Death)John D. Martin III
October 11, 2021
After two UNC students died from suicide in one 24-hour period over this past weekend, I wrote a message to my current students this morning. I wanted to share it more widely, so I have copied it verbatim below.
Mental Health: Office hours and other activities cancelled until Thursday (TW/CW: suicide, death) I’m canceling office hours and other activities until Thursday morning. Everyone needs to take some time this week and rest. That includes the instructional staff. So, I’m declaring an office hours hiatus until then.
This is a very difficult message to write, so I am going to do so in the only way I really know how, which is to speak very frankly and personally about the multiple deaths from suicide that occurred over the weekend that just passed.
One morning around this time of the year in 2012, a few months after I had moved to Chapel Hill to start a PhD, I received a phone call from a friend in Kalamazoo, MI where I had moved from just a few weeks prior. His voice was shaky. He had called to tell me that his husband, my best friend (we’ll call him Dave), had died in the early hours of the morning, and that it had been suicide.
I knew that Dave had been struggling for some time. I had spent the year prior in Kalamazoo trying to be there for him. I felt like my leaving precipitated this. I felt responsible. I wanted to scream and sob, but my friend was already doing that on the phone. So, I cried softly and listened. And I went completely numb. I just shut off that part of my brain and boxed it away. I went on about my day, which included going to a workshop all day, pretending outwardly as if everything were fine. Internally, I was not okay. I was never okay again. I’m still not okay.
Dave had carved out a life for himself and seemed happy. He was loved. His husband adored him. His friends cared for him deeply. His community treated him like a celebrity when he walked into a room.
Dave experienced depression and anxiety. Dave was an alcoholic. Dave had a history of childhood and adult trauma as the result of abuse. Nothing, no amount of success or stability or external validation could remove these things. They were with him all the time. And he never told anyone about them. He remained quiet about his own suffering.
I did not know that Dave experienced suicidal ideation. None of us knew. None of the people closest to him knew that he had a plan. We didn’t know. It’s not the kind of thing that comes up in conversation. It’s not the kind of thing that people disclose: because it is terrifying.
And it can happen to any of us.
About 5 years ago, I noticed a shift in the way that my mind responded to things. I have always tended to be able to push through obstacles and let setbacks roll off my back. I felt suddenly unable to do this. I withdrew. I withdrew from my friends, from my husband, from my family. I started around then to experience very strong self-harm ideation. It was not the first time in my life, but previously I had been able to make it go away. I couldn’t do that anymore.
I knew it was bad. I knew I was experiencing depression. I would have waves of it that would take me out for days. I would come out of it and feel like I had lost time. These were depressive episodes, I would later learn.
I was also increasingly experiencing anxiety attacks, which would eventually become panic attacks. I had always experienced anxiety but dealt with it largely by ignoring it. Suddenly, I couldn’t. It was about everything and nothing all the time.
I kept all of this to myself because I didn’t want to burden anyone else with it. I didn’t want my friends and family and colleagues to know because I was embarrassed that I somehow couldn’t handle things. I was also scared. Acknowledging it made it feel real. I didn’t want it to be real.
The thing for me that changed everything was when I woke up one morning and those intrusive thoughts refused to go away. Nothing I did turned down their volume. Their pitch had also changed somehow. Instead of just being about harm, they had become more ominous. I was thinking idly about ways to end my life. That had never happened before.
I started that day to look for a therapist. It was difficult. I had asked my doctor to assess me for anxiety and they told me to lose some weight and lower my blood pressure. I contacted multiple therapists without receiving a response or only to be told that they were not taking new patients at that time.
Through this period, I also had repeated, very dark self-destructive episodes. I drank to the point of blacking out. I don’t really remember most of 2017. I was on autopilot. In my everyday life, I tried to appear normal. I am not sure that anyone noticed how unwell I was because I tried to never let on. I was still operating as if I was fine. I was still covering, even to myself, even though I knew I needed help.
At the end of that year, I finally found a therapist and psychiatrist. By that point, I was what clinicians refer to as “in crisis” but I was still masking and covering, even with my therapist. It took a while to chip away at that, but they started by focusing on symptomatic relief which allowed me to get to a place where I could start healing. It was not easy. It was not fast. It has not been without obstacles. It is ongoing.
Why am I telling you all of this?
First, I want you to know that there are people in your lives who experience VERY severe forms of mental illness in ways that are completely invisible to you. You have friends, family, colleagues, instructors, acquaintances, etc. who are struggling and suffering around you, right now. Right this very moment.
Second, I want you to know, if you are someone who has experienced trauma, or experiences mental illness, and you feel like you are alone in this: you are not alone. It seems cliche to say it this way, but it is true. There are so many people around you who understand and who struggle and suffer similarly. You are literally not alone.
Finally, I’m telling you this because keeping quiet about it doesn’t help anyone. I am open about my experience with mental illness now. I talk publicly about it. I disclose it because I’ve come to the understanding that keeping it to myself didn’t help me. It didn’t help the people close to me who have succumbed to it and died from it. It doesn’t help anyone else who might be struggling around me.
I’ve noticed, increasingly, that students seem to feel like they have to disclose their trauma in order to receive the simplest grace, such as an extension on an assignment in class. We are operating in a system that encourages people who have power to not care. We have operationalized “fairness” as not caring about people’s lives and the things that they face. We have come to expect that, particularly at the university, we have to trade enormous trauma in order to receive even the smallest relief from constant pressure to produce.
It’s not worth it. None of this is worth it. None of it. We cannot learn in an environment like this. No learning takes place here. Just more trauma. All of this: these classes, the grades, the degrees, the honors, the awards, the recognition; it’s all for nothing if you can’t live through it. None of it, NONE of it, is worth your life, your health, your well-being. None of it.
You are not failing in a system like the one at this university. It is failing you. You deserve better. You deserve to be treated like people who have lives and face things that might get in the way. You deserve to be helped through them. You deserve to be taught ways to work through obstacles without sacrificing your well-being. You deserve to know that you are not alone and that there is help available. You deserve better than what you are currently experiencing.
And it is a choice. We have a choice. We could approach education from a place of care. We have collectively chosen otherwise. We’ve chosen to accept the most callous responses from administrators and many faculty in the face of gruelling adversity. We have spent the better part of the last two years surrounded by death and disease and we are expected to operate as if everything is fine?
Everything is not fine. And I’m not going to pretend like it is. What I am going to do is tell you that we will get through the rest of this semester. We will do it together. That is the only way through. This is a class about web development, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t also be a class about being human. Everything we do here should be about that, first.
So for this week, for right now, I want you to not worry about this class. I want you to not think about it. Just take a few days and think about anything else. Do something that makes you feel good, joyous, buoyant. On Thursday, we’ll meet live on Zoom and talk about regrouping and how the rest of the semester will go. In the meantime, if you are struggling, please reach out to me. I care about your well-being. I care about your success. I am not going to let you fail. I am not going to watch you struggle needlessly. You deserve better. We deserve better.
I also encourage you to keep this number on hand: 1-800-273-8255. It is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There is also a chat function available if that is more comfortable than talking over the phone.
This number has helped me and has helped friends who were not able to talk to anyone around them at times. You don’t have to be in crisis to call. You don’t have to be actively experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation. You can just call if you are struggling. The operators can direct you to other resources as well. Please share the number and link widely if you aren’t doing so already. Remind the people around you that there is help available.
Until Thursday and beyond that: take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Push back against the callousness that has become our standard operating mode at the university. Be kind and patient, particularly with yourselves. You deserve this and so much more.