College Students and Suicide

We were in one of Emory’s freshman dorms celebrating my 19th birthday. The surprise party, pink- and-orange  decorations, white lights, and the warmth of my friends made the day pretty memorable. Yet, that day was made unforgettable for a different reason.

It was after everyone left that I began opening my presents. I had opened all of my presents and read most of my cards when I came across a handwritten birthday card that was decorated in red and green marker-ink. Inside the card was a very, very long note. I was going to put the card aside until I realized that the note was from one of my closest friends. I had known her all my life and was fortunate enough to be attending the same college with her – someone who was there to witness every awkward phase of my life as I matured and grew. The card began with the typical birthday wishes and a recollection of some of the best memories we shared as friends. When I reached the middle of the note, my life would never be the same again.

My friend, who I loved dearly and knew so well, confessed that I had saved her life one day. It was the middle of the semester and she had attempted to intentionally overdose on a medication, thinking that it would end her life. She was in the midst of this process when she received a phone call from me. I had called to ask her a question but also to check in on how she was doing. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. She said she was stressed and going through a difficult time. I tried to say something encouraging; however, I don’t recall exactly what I said to her. Nevertheless, I had come to know later that that simple gesture was enough for her to change her mind.

College students are at that point in the semester in which mental illness surfaces the most. There are so many reasons why this makes sense. With midterms, projects, writing assignments, extracurriculars, enrollment and with the added pressure of finding their individual motivation and purpose in life there is no doubt that college students can be subjected to all forms of mental illnesses. However, sometimes colleges or universities are not as understanding when students act on their state of mind.

W.P., a pseudonym for a first-year student at Princeton in 2013, was forced to leave after he attempted suicide for the third time. It is well known that in cases such as these, intensive psychiatric treatment becomes mandated. However, lesser known is that if students don’t voluntarily take a leave of absence after they pose a threat to themselves, they are involuntarily withdrawn from the university such as in the case of W.P. While he suggested other alternatives such as taking a lighter course load or living off campus, he was told that these conditions would “fundamentally alter the nature of a Princeton education.” Additionally, Princeton did not want to be held accountable for W.P.’s suicidal tendencies.

This is not an uncommon process. To keep things in its natural order, many universities require suicidal students to leave campus. Nevertheless, it was the act of leaving campus itself that almost completely hindered W.P’s recovery process. He lost his motivation in life and his self-esteem. According to W.P.’s psychiatrist, “An important aspect of W.P.’s recovery [was] a sense of purpose. Requiring a leave of absence and excluding him from the university community at this time [would] be detrimental to his health and well-being.”

When W.P. was denied an appeal, he filed a lawsuit against Princeton accusing it of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fair Housing Act Amendments. However, Princeton won on the basis that it simply “did not want to gamble with W.P.’s life”

This New Yorker article brings to mind the question of what Emory does when it encounters a student who has had thoughts of ending his or her life. Taking a year off might be beneficial to some but to others like W.P. it does not do much to find that sense of purpose in life. For that whole year, you might feel less resilient. You might feel like you’re wasting time. College is all about discovering yourself and what you are passionate about. It does not always come immediately and it does not always turn out the way you expected or imagined it would. However, what ultimately matters is constantly surrounding yourself by people who you think/know might care. And if you ever sense that someone is going through a rough time, just a simple “how are you doing” might even be sufficient. You never know the impact that your actions might have on someone else’s life as I came to know the day I received that birthday card.

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