The Dark Season – Part 1
Now that many of us are either back or heading back soon to campus, the “Geeze” (My street name. Just ask around.) wants to seize this carb stoked, sugar bloated moment to raise a delicate subject – the dark season. I don’t mean early dusks fading into long nights. I want to look at, not the elephant in the room we ignore but the ball of maggots in the corner that revolts us into a nose holding silence. Let’s look at college student suicides.
Each academic year, approximately 18 million students hit American campuses. 1.5 out of every 100 students will actually attempt suicide during this academic year. 1100 will succeed. 1100 is just a number Want a picture? Why do they do it? A number of reasons include stress. Some falsely believe that college is wasted on privileged kids who just go to party and live irresponsible lives. Some do. But they usually flunk out, blowing nice financial aid to irretrievable pieces and trying to salvage something at the local community college or online while trying to outrun the hounds of loan repayment. Smart got us in but how do we keep doing it when everyone around us seems just as smart and many smarter? If we want even a shot at grad school, average won’t cut it. Many universities flaunting reputations for especially rigorous work make sure the work pushes students beyond any degree of difficulty they’ve ever known. Parental expectations get thrown on the pile.
It’s tough being away from home for the first time. The first sips from the golden chalice of FREEDOM from parents can be heady – or bitter. We can reinvent ourselves, a new start. But we also get away from all the attachments that defined us (home, school, church, friends) to find ourselves adrift with the old definitions no longer fitting and no new ones emerging to bring identity and meaning. And it seems to be happening just fine for everyone else. Extreme behaviour (read alcohol, drugs or sex) marks either notched up attempts to become someone noticeable or to medicate the hurt when no one does.
Many students bring more than microwaves and laptops to campus in the fall. More and more bring mental illness. Much of it lies present but unrecognized. As adolescence and early adulthood stand as prime time for the onset of bipolar disease, schizophrenia and depression, we often don’t see them coming. Sometimes the bomb ticks in our gene pool. These can and do morph into all kinds of self-destructive behaviour such as substance abuse, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. Once recognized, treatment can be as basic as the proper medication as determined by a thorough blood work up monitored by medical professionals. Symptoms of suicidal behaviour are pretty clear. The problem lies more with friends and family who indulge some degree of denial, not wanting to see something they find too horrific to look at. In my world right now lives someone who refused to read signs of his father’s impending suicide. Now he jumps into troubled lives sometimes with the subtlety of a bull on amphetamines. He says his days of saying and doing nothing are over but that doesn’t bring his father back. If you see something in a friend, PAY ATTENTION AND TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. Not all suicide attempts constitute a cry for help; some people just want to do it. But the majority of attempts and successes left a trail that could have been traced and acted upon.
Help – where to get it? Sometimes the best place is to turn to those who have grappled with it most fiercely. Between September of 2009 and March of 2010, Cornell University suffered the shock of six student suicides made more horrific in the manner of death as students threw themselves into the beautiful gorges on and around campus. During the same time period, five other students died tragically through car accidents and other untimely means. One suicide on a campus devastates everyone. How do you begin to cope with this? Cornell’s own Gannett Health Services brought a broad array of resources to bear on the problem. The health center at our own school can do much the same. A student run peer counselling service dealing with all sorts of crises including suicide gives troubled students a place to start before problems become overwhelming. The Jed Foundation bristles with help for the depressed and everyone alongside them – especially ULifeline. Christians needing immediate help should check them out.
And there are people alongside them. One out of every ten people in the United States is permanently touched by a suicide. Numbers alone can’t hold the pain of those who endure the suicide of a loved one. Dr. Paul Vitz (Socrates in the City, p.90) points out what surviving family and friends already know too well. The acid rain of rejection, hostility, abandonment and guilt can and does eat the guts out of everyone left behind. Suicide stands as an utterly self-centered act. All reality gets twisted into the shape of the distorted perceptions of the suicidal person. Those perceptions include their life situation and its apparent hopelessness. It also includes no thought for the aftermath in the lives of every person they know. While the suicidal person certainly does lack clarity on their life perspective, that does not necessarily remove them from a certain degree of responsibility for the impact of their actions on others.
Meet Ken Baldwin. He survived a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge. Not many can say that. Twenty-eight years old and severely depressed, Ken told his wife not to expect him home until late. Then on that August day in 1985, he went to the bridge and stood poised to jump. He counted to ten and froze. He counted once more and then vaulted over the rail. His thoughts? “I still see my hands coming off the railing. I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable – except for having just jumped.” The unfixable in our lives is fixable – especially under the tender touch of Jesus Christ. That’s this post’s takeaway. But it’s not this post’s conclusion. Our next post, The Dark Season – Part 2, examines whether or not Christians can kill themselves (spoiler – They can and do.) and what about eternity, hell and stuff. The Dark Season – Part 3 looks at biblical hope for the many inside our churches who suffer from mental illness and suggested resources to help Christians to not treat these people like lepers.
Meanwhile, you know about other resources that I haven’t listed. Yell back on my response page or at email@example.com. I’ll publish them here. Someone’s life and eternity, as well as the mental health of others around them, could hang on it. Please return your seat to the upright position, hand your night vision goggles to the attendant and exit to the rear. See you next time at geezeronthequad.