Saturday, December 1, 2007

In memoriam: academic suicides

John Blodgett Edwards, a Harvard sophomore was found dead in a fourth floor bathroom at the Harvard Medical School New Research Building at 11 pm Thursday night with a plastic bag over his head and a bottle of chemicals nearby.

Right now, undergraduate and graduate students around the country are preparing final papers, taking exams, regretting all that they didn't do, and vowing that next semester will be better. I've ended my student days, but I remember vividly how overwhelming it can feel, with everyone feeling like they have their own personal anvil suspended above their heads by a fraying string, eroded further by each additional challenge.

Everyone would like to believe that the suicides are different from the other students, but the research that I'm aware of shows that suicides differ from others primarily in the opportunity. Gun owners commit suicide at higher rates than non gun owners, with guns that they have owned for a long time, and many unsuccessful suicides do not attempt a second time, indicating that the urge to commit suicide did not cause them to buy a gun; rather they had the gun when the urge for suicide came. Another part of the opportunity is isolation.

In these cold days of diminishing light when everyone is absorbed in their own work, some students feel an overwhelming despair. When everyone around them is feverishly absorbed in the enormity of their work, and social exchanges are hurried and rushed, students have many more opportunities to feel alone and overwhelmed.

My high school classmate who committed suicide during college did so during the end of the term of the spring semester. I remember finding out about the suicide while rushing from one thing to the next, finishing a paper. A close friend who attempted suicide did so during exams, when regular classes and activities are suspended, in theory to allow people to concentrate fully on their studies. In reality, students isolate themselves, and the average student finds themselves pursuing pointless feats of procrastination.

Few students, even those who feel themselves coming close to the brink of mental collapse, will confide their anguish to others. The best that we can do is always to be human to each other. A smile and a friendly word are simple gestures, and it seems naive to say this, but reaching out just to be friendly can cut through others' isolation and despair, even just slightly. Colleges may follow this suicide with new restrictions on the availability of chemicals to undergraduates, and more psychological counseling. What might make a bigger difference is individual faculty members making the effort to prevent the feverish and despairing self-absorption by distributing work more evenly throughout the term, with firm deadlines to prevent procrastination. Procrastination is part of human nature, and the end of the term will always be more busy than the beginning, but the self-absorbed despairing frenzy that many students fall into at the end of the term could be reduced, at least a little, with some thought and effort.

College students feel themselves to be adults, and legally they are. As robust and self-assured as they seem to be, though, some students' mental health is far from robust. And yet they're thrown into an environment where they are living alone for the first time, negotiating the adult world of available sexuality and substance use, figuring out what they want to be when they grow up personally and professionally, and, in most but the most intimate small colleges, taking courses which are both intellectually challenging and structured by faculty preoccupied with their own research, rather than pedagogy.

Suicides are tragic but rare, but the isolation and despair that lead to the suicides are widespread. I hope that university communities react to tragedies such as this one by remembering to reach out to others with a light touch, and to plan their courses to diminish students' isolated despair.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I'm a postgraduate (started in Oct 2007), and I attempted suicide last year in the last year of my undergraduate degree. Why? Because I felt my life had so many failures:

i. Philosophy as an academic career is too hard
ii. I felt lonely
iii. I came to the realisation I would never fall in love with someone who I could have
iv. I lost my past, and my friends.
v. The day I attempted suicide...was the day of a deadline for a paper.

I was incarcerated, deemed irrational and mentally unstable. The stigma is immense, I had lost a great deal. But I created an internet support group, and I try to help 900 people on that group, and I strive to justify my existence by trying to be a good philosopher.

The university, and the health services are insensitive, unhelpful, and derogatory. I was isolated because of the things that constituted my depression, but now, my isolation is exascerbated by my refusal to tell my department (because in my undergrad, the department talked about my illness very casually, and EVERY MEMBER of the department knew - I think this is a confidentiality breach).

I am in a fairly reputed university department for philosophy, but they are unwelcoming and insensitive to mental illness. I am isolated because the people who are supposed to understand, help and support, cannot cope with the issues I bring up.

I thought philosophers were the kind of people who didn't ignore the difficult realities...some philosophers we are if we don't care about others, or choose to ignore this psychologically troubling phenomenon.

I think a popular blog like yours has done great justice to the issue, I appreciate your post more than you could ever know,

Conatus