Go to:Part 1 Part 2
Part 1 What it Means to Be Well by Wilfred Chan
I used to think there was something seriously wrong with me, because my life looked nothing like the Columbia admissions brochure. Judging by The Blue Album, Columbia students are "embraced" by the "warmth of a close-knit community." They are flawless, radiant, and successful. They do research while juggling classes and community service, throwing Frisbees on the lawn, and hitting SoHo every weekend.
So when I looked at myself, a lonely, unhappy, and overwhelmed freshman—I blamed myself. I was scared to tell people I was unwell, because everyone else seemed so put-together. I couldn't admit that I had become terribly lost when all I wanted was to seem normal and to fit in. I would've rather died than let people think I didn't understand how to be a perfect Columbia student.
Instead, I played the "I am fine" game. I smiled, put on a happy face, and bragged about how long I had stayed up in Butler Library, or how few hours of sleep I had gotten, as if it were nothing. I attempted to legitimize my miserable appearance. I took ownership of my sadness, as if the suffering was the product of my choices and I was proud of it. But in reality, I wasn't in control. I was in denial.
Now, in my third year, I realize that I was far from alone. The truth is, many students who are suffering don't really admit it. At Columbia, stress and misery are treated as harmless norms, and competitive commiseration has become the official school sport. We brag about how little sleep we get ("You got five hours? That's not bad, I got two!"), and act flip about how much we "hate" our lives. Few speak about wellness, because shared misery, not shared joy, is what validates us as Columbians. As a June 2011 Columbia Health Services study phrased it, "Stress at Columbia is a unifying experience and the only commonality (norm) across all schools with which students can identify."
But when stress is recast as a harmless, shared culture, many students end up suffering in silence. According to Dr. Anne Goldfield of Columbia Psychological Services, 60 percent of Columbia students have felt "hopeless" at some point, 25 percent report sleeping problems, and 6 percent have seriously considered suicide.
So when Tina Bu, a Columbia College junior, quietly took her own life in River Hall this October, it was no surprise that many strangers instinctively recognized her as one of our own. I didn't know her, but the loss devastated me. I felt guilty and helpless. If only she knew how many others were going through similar things … If only we could've been there for her.
The more I've gotten to know Tina's close friends in the month since her death, the more I realize that there was probably little I could've done. Tina was loved and was getting help from the school, but ultimately suicide has an unimaginable logic of its own. Nevertheless, the tragedy seemed to invigorate a thorough re-examination of our own lives. The tremendous outpouring of grief and solidarity from over a hundred and fifty anonymous strangers on Bwog is a haunting testament to how intimately Columbians understand desolation.
After her death, it was as if our masks came off. A close friend called me the night Tina died and tearfully confessed that she had also been thinking about suicide—after we spoke, she resolved to seek help. Acquaintances who I hadn't spoken to all year shared stories of depression, loneliness, or how Tina's passing affected them even though they never knew her. In turn, they listened as I expressed my grief. And, when a small group of fellow students and I met with Dean Valentini to share our thoughts and feelings about the tragedy, he opened up to us about his feelings and ensured we knew he truly cared. We weren't just stressed Columbians anymore. We were human. We stopped pretending to be fine, and as we talked, cried, and hugged, we also started to heal.
On reflection, I realized that this sort of deep, searing honesty is required if we want to get past simply being "fine" and think about what it means to be truly well. We all suffer in life, and a high-pressure college like Columbia will inherently come with its challenges. But denial and masochism only gets us so far. It is only by deeply confronting our suffering that we can think about hope; only by facing our pain can we think about healing. Forcing ourselves to act "fine," or living with the idea that Columbia students should relish our own misery, only means that we are oppressed. Only once we end the cruel façade will we understand the idea of wellness.
Wellness is not an end, some sort of point B that we can reach after X years; an item to be checked off a list of objectives. It is not a thing that we 'have' when we're happy and don't have when we're stressed. True wellness is a balanced, multi-dimensional concept of healthy living; a deep sense of self-love that stays with us even when we are struggling. It is a patient and ongoing process that helps us strive towards a life of balance and purpose. It is a refusal to simply say "life sucks;" it is a faith in the possibility of fulfillment and joy. It is knowing we deserve to feel like our best selves. If we can live this way, then we will no longer be a community of false toughness, but a community of genuine strength.
However, it is now December, and the stress of finals is once again upon us. Will all of this dialogue be remembered as a temporary reaction to an isolated tragedy, or can it become a flashpoint for a more permanent transformation? According to the June 2011 Health Services study, "Students would like to see [the culture of stress] change but none are willing to take this on because their time here is transient." Yet, as one commenter on Bwog heaves, there is a "duplicitousness in acknowledging an extremely unhealthy culture and at the same time being unwilling to address it on any meaningful level."
As the saying goes, "In order to change, we must be sick and tired of being sick and tired." Our meeting with Dean Valentini after Tina's death inspired me to start an open movement called the Student Wellness Project. Now comprised of students from all four undergraduate schools, including members of the groups like Stressbusters, the Student Health Advisory Committee, the Columbia Neuroscience Society, and the student councils, the project has one aim: to creatively and pragmatically combine students' ideas to promote wellness at Columbia. We've begun to lay the groundwork for an online student-run wellness hub that will centralize campus resources; a new peer-to-peer wellness mentoring program; improved NSOP programming about mental health and stress; a student-led healthy eating co-op; and campus puppy therapy, just to name a few. In reality, these are just a few simple steps. Many other groups on campus are hard at work doing similar things, and the possibilities are truly endless.
However, students should not bear the entire burden. The administration must step up as well. A Columbia Health Services survey found that 45.6 percent of Columbia students rated "University administrative processes" as the number one cause of non-academic stress in their lives. Columbia Psychological Services sees over 4,000 students annually, yet it can take three weeks to have an appointment. Columbia Student Advising has made improvements to its booking system, yet many still feel that it is hard to find an adviser that understands them. The financial aid office can be daunting, and students tell stories about being shuffled for hours from department to department. The list goes on, and on.
Part of this is unavoidable. Former Columbia Dean of Students Roger Lehecka explains that large colleges tend to "parcel out" students' needs into compartmentalized bureaucratic units to deal with specific student issues. Yet, he says, "there have to be some people here who can talk to you as though you were a whole person, and not just refer you to somebody else." Recognizing this, schools such as Ohio State University, the University of California, and our own Barnard have created innovative and highly accessible student wellness centers that take a personal, open, and holistic approach to student well-being. These wellness centers unify campus resources and offer broad guidance to students who may simply need general help. As Lehecka points out, "Many administrators and advisers of necessity have areas of special knowledge, but students have one life."
Just as the administration can enact large wellness initiatives, it's often the small personal touches that make all the difference. Bureaucrats take heed: Columbia's most beloved figures—from former Dean Austin Quigley down to Public Safety's "Sir Mike" in Carman Hall—are the ones who take the time to smile, say hi, and treat students like real people. In a school as obfuscating as Columbia, gestures of care shine through like rays of light. "Couches in the Financial Aid office would be so easy," Ryan Mandelbaum, a junior at Columbia, says. "Free cookies and fruit in student common areas during exams would be an inexpensive way to raise student spirits," suggests Lehecka.
This is not a complete list of solutions. Still, a community that treats us well helps us each treat ourselves well. As Sophie Luo, sophomore in CC, points out, "Our school pride has a relationship with our own feelings of self worth." There is simply no sense in continuing a Columbia culture that condones misery as a harmless fact of life. Though we can never get rid of stress, we can change the way we think about it.
Moving forward, we can learn to pursue long-term community wellness even as we manage life's short-term pressures. Let us be honest to ourselves, and to one another about the challenges we each face. Let us listen to one another, and create an environment where students can not only ask for help, but share their feelings of joy. Let us not just be satisfied with how pretty this school looks in The Blue Album. We should strive to build a real community around the ideals of wellness, support, and genuine self-love.
All of this starts with self-discovery, which is a highly personal, subjective — and often difficult — journey. But if we can start with just one thing, let us remember to simply remind those around us that we really care. All we really have is each other. As one commenter on Bwog notes, "The reason I am proud to be a 'Columbian' is because of the amazing peers, faculty, and alumni, and I know that in the future I will not remember the 20 page paper I have due tomorrow, but the people who get me through the night."
For more information about the Student Wellness Project, please see cuwellness.com.
Part 2 Outside, Looking In by Sarah Ngu
It was on a Sunday night.
I found my friend Tina and her mom in the back corner of Ollie's, both drinking noodle soups. Tina had told me that her mom was visiting for the weekend and wanted us to get dinner. I tried to keep the conversation light, but it was hard not to notice that Tina was mustering all she had just to be present.
After a while, I turned to her mom to loop her into the conversation. "Mrs. Bu, how have you been? It must be tough going through all of this, too, trying to help," I asked.
She nodded her head. "There are some feelings that me and Tina's father can't really understand. We come from China, and it's different for Tina, who grew up here. But I'm here, and I just want Tina to get better ... faster," she replied.
Mrs. Bu and Tina were of different generations and cultures, and Mrs. Bu didn't fully understand her daughter's pain. But knowing that her daughter was hurting badly was enough for her to fly in from South Carolina.
A week later, on Oct. 23rd, Mrs. Bu, along with the rest of her family, was informed that her daughter had taken her life.
As news of Tina's death spread, hundreds of comments poured in on Bwog and Spectator. "I didn't know her, but damn this still made me cry," one wrote on a Bwog article. Another commented on the same article, "If anything remotely 'good' can come out of this, it's that hearing about her situation has made me realize I'm not the only one struggling to get by on this campus, and that it doesn't have to be this way. I think I'll make an appointment with CPS tomorrow to start turning things around. R.I.P. Tina, I would have loved to be your friend."
Pain connects even strangers, and suicide is the loudest of all cries of pain. A few days after Tina's death, a group of students, including me, came together to form the Student Wellness Project. It was odd to see my friends, student leaders, and administrators all talking about Tina, as most of them did not know her. It was surreal to see Tina, who was not heavily involved in the "campus scene," suddenly pop up everywhere in my public, student-leader sphere.
I met Tina two years ago in the lounge of Schapiro on the 14th floor, where we both lived. I came to cook, and she came to microwave her sandwiches. As Tina was naturally friendly and easygoing, it wasn't long before we started talking. I invited her to a service at my church, after which she gave me a big hug, thanking me for the chance to meet my friends.
She was eager to meet people, partly because, as I found out shortly after, she had taken a year off due to her depression. I was a little stunned when I found out that this cheery girl was on medication and seeing a therapist weekly.
That whole year, she was more or less fine. She made friends, reconnected with old ones, and got involved with Barnard's Toddler Learning Center, as she loved kids. She became my go-to person for unwinding after a long day.
Her slow, Southern pace was refreshing compared to my overworked schedule. Once, worried for me, she made me a physical calendar to keep track of all my big deadlines, as she was the kind of person who studied for exams two weeks in advance to avoid stress. We made fun of overly pretentious poetry, and we both loved words. She was the poet, and I was the journalist. I showed her my articles, and she read me poetry aloud, slow and steady, methodically savoring each word. We were, in some ways, incredibly different. She would interrupt me whenever I spouted my head off about theology to let me know that I was getting too abstract and that she didn't understand me.
Her favorite story to tell others about me was when she bought a new pack of stickers and showed them to me with much glee. I studied them for a moment. "What are they for?" I asked in all earnestness, sending her into a fit of laughter.
Those past two years were like this: She was walking on a high, thin beam of normalcy, carefully weaving safety nets of friendship, therapy, and medication to support her. Then, at some point last semester, something pushed her off the edge, and the nets couldn't hold her. The details of what exactly pushed her over are not meant for a public forum. When you're balancing on such a high, thin beam, I wonder if it really matters.
Reality can be harsh, but what is worse is when depression strips you of the tools to deal with it and then creates a pseudo-reality. She called at random times in the middle of this summer, crying, always apologetic, not wanting to take up too much time. I would talk to her privately in the restroom, fumbling over what to say, staring at the threads of the bathroom mat, praying silently.
Fall semester began. She began to sleep away many hours of the night and day. TK, her best friend, began visiting her every day, just to be safe. In early October, I came over to her room and saw that she was in terrible shape. She confided that she had thought about death but assured me that she was not suicidal. I asked her to stay over at my place for as long as she wanted to, because I didn't want her to be alone. She was reluctant to do so, citing logistical complications, so I didn't press it.
Afterwards, she reassured me that she was feeling better. She started attending classes again, and her mom visited for the weekend, both actions I took as good signs. During that dinner at Ollie's, she assured me that she was really thankful for her mother and her friendships with TK and me.
Her mom wanted her to come home with her to South Carolina, but Tina said she wanted to wait until Thanksgiving break to see if she could get her grades up.
Things must be looking up, I reasoned. She called many people to tell them she was grateful for their friendship on Thursday night. The RA on duty on Thursday night chatted with her for at least half an hour.
Yes, she was fine, and she wasn't thinking about hurting herself at all, she reassured him, almost too cheerfully.
We chatted on the phone Friday afternoon for a bit, as I was in a meeting and couldn't come over, and she seemed sad as usual but fine.
At around 6 p.m. on Sunday, I bumped into TK just outside of Broadway. He broke the news to me. We went over to River , the dorm where she lived, and saw the medics loading a wrapped-up body on a stretcher into an ambulance.
In articles like this, one is supposed to lift lessons out of tragedies with a few deft strokes of a pen. The call that Wilfred has made for honesty, solidarity and administrative change to improve community wellness needs to be heeded. While it is clear that there are general things that ought to be changed, when I examine my individual story with Tina and what it means to be a friend on the sidelines, I don't have any solid answers, just open questions about the intransigent problem of communication.
The first question is translation: how do you translate perceived emotion into instructions for action? When Tina told me how she was feeling, I wasn't always sure how to respond, afraid I would do something wrong. In the fallout after her death, many friends knew I was grieving and offered to get me anything. Yet I felt bad making requests of them and felt relieved when my InterVarsity Christian small group simply dropped off dinner and cookies.
The second question is interpretation: how do you interpret mixed signals? What do you do when a friend seeks help and then pulls back and seems happier? It was as if there was a fire going on in the house, and Tina had opened the windows but kept the door locked. We were left watching from the outside. Then again, how much was my interpretation of her signals dependent on my availability? If I wasn't in a meeting that Friday afternoon, would I have picked up on how she was actually feeling?
The third question is not so much a question as a Catch-22: If you're not suicidal, then you're not suicidal. But if you are suicidal, you are most likely not going to tell anyone because you don't want anyone to stop you.
In the last week, Tina made sure that no one—from her RA, to her friends, to her family, to CPS—would think she was at the edge of the precipice and that they would not feel like a "bad friend" once she left.
The cry of pain is universal, but sometimes it is misheard, heard too late, or heard with little to no hints of what to do.
The story of Tina's death is not a story about how someone fell through the cracks. People in Residential Life, Advising, and Psychological Services and her close friends all knew and were keeping tabs. Perhaps we could have reacted in overcompensation to intervene, but would our intervention only have delayed the inevitable? For no matter how much care was thrown her way, it always hit an internal wall. It was acknowledged by her, even gratefully so, but ultimately repelled.
During dinner at Artopolis, I asked Tina's younger brother when he visited with his parents a few days after the death, how he felt about everything.
He said, "It doesn't seem like Tina would have done it. I feel like they were two different people—my older sister who I knew and the person who killed herself." I recalled his words as I sat on the chairs, staring at the stiff, wooden funeral casket, wondering at the fact that it contained Tina while disbelieving it at the same time. It technically held her body, surely, just as her depression had held her in a vise of unreality, but neither of them captured her.
A guestbook was passed around for attendees to sign their names and leave brief notes. After signing my name, I looked at the book for a while, before deciding finally to write, "I hope you're free at last."
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