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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Notes from the Desk: Why we need to talk about suicide

Content Warning: This op-ed contains mentions of suicide.

It is terrifying to wake up one day wishing you were dead. 

That fear consumed me earlier this semester. I later discovered my suicidal ideation — the wish to be dead, but not necessarily to kill yourself — was a side effect of an antidepressant I had begun taking. I am off that medication and doing much better now. But the couple of weeks during which I cried myself to sleep nightly hoping I would not wake up the next morning continue to haunt me, especially in the wake of Yan’s death by suicide.

I am not alone in feeling particularly raw these last few weeks; many other students here have experience with suicidal thoughts and ideation or continue to experience them. Others have lost loved ones to suicide or gone through traumatic periods trying to support loved ones through their own mental health struggles. 

The reality is that we are living in a dangerous age and a dangerous place. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, “Suicide is the leading cause of death among college and university students.” Yet, even after losing one of our own to suicide, why does it seem like no one is talking about it?

Every time I have mentioned my own experiences and trauma with suicidal thoughts in the wake of Yan’s death, my peers have responded in kind. I have walked away from those conversations feeling nourished by the trust and vulnerability of my classmates and the sense of comradery in grief and pain. It doesn’t make the hurt any lighter, but god is it such a relief to shoulder the burden together rather than alone. 

I think back to those lonely nights where I wished I were dead and realize these conversations are exactly what I needed. What a difference it would have made for me to know that I was not suffering alone, that there were those around me who were going through the same, or had gone through it and survived. I am so sad and so angry for the Sophia who felt they had no one to turn to, who went to class surrounded by people more like them than they ever knew and yet felt so alone.

We need to seriously think about what gets communicated when we don’t communicate. When the message after a student’s death by suicide is: “Here are some resources that you should reach out to if you need help,” it puts the onus and responsibility on the person struggling. Suicidal thoughts, depression and other mental health struggles are incredibly isolating as is. They tell you that you are alone in your suffering, and weak for it. That no one cares and no one will come to save you. 

In those dark weeks, it took all of my energy to get out of bed, to maybe make it to class (oftentimes I didn’t) and to function as somewhat of a human being. Every cell in my body was working in overdrive just to stay alive, and yet I was being asked to make all of these calls and chase after all of these resources and self-advocate time and time again on top of it all. It felt so isolating, unmanageable and deeply, deeply unfair. 

If the message when you need help is that you have to search for it yourself, all that many people will hear is that there is no help for them. 

Equally damaging is the message, while well-intentioned, to “check in on your friends.” Often, people experiencing suicidal thoughts view themselves as a huge burden on their friends and loved ones. The weight of our own sadness and hurt feels too large to bear, so how could we imagine putting that on the people we care about? When we hear over and over again this message that seems to imply that our friends are the ones responsible for our survival, it only heightens that feeling of being a burden and deepens the isolation. 

The reality is that we are 20-year-olds. We are not equipped to handle our friends’ mental health crises on our own, nor can we alone save our friends from the demons (and chemicals) within their own minds. 

Suicide is an institutional failing, not an individual one. We as a community, and certainly Middlebury as an institution, have failed to create a culture where we can talk about suicide and provide support for those experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges. We have failed to create room for those whose full effort is spent on surviving and celebrate them for doing so rather than punishing them for falling behind on schoolwork or missing classes. And we have failed now, in the wake of Yan’s death by suicide, to show those experiencing similar struggles that we care at all. 

We need to change, and we need to talk about suicide. Before it’s too late.

If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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Sophia McDermott-Hughes

Sophia McDermott-Hughes ’23.5 (they/them) is an editor at large.  

They previously served as a news editor and senior news writer.

McDermott-Hughes is a joint Arabic and anthropology and Arabic major.  

Over the summer, they worked as a general assignment reporter at Morocco World News, the main English-language paper in Morocco.  

In the summer of 2021 they reported for statewide digital newspaper VTDigger, focusing on issues relating to migrant workers and immigration.  

In 2018 and 2019, McDermott-Hughes worked as a reporter on the Since Parkland Project, a partnership with the Trace and the Miami Herald, which chronicled the lives of the more than 1,200 children killed by gun violence in the United States in the year since the Marjory Stoneman  Douglas High School shooting in Florida.