After a tragedy in which a person takes their own life, almost like clockwork, a chorus of “check on your friends” usually appears on my social media timelines. This often leaves me to wonder: What does that even mean?
The premise of that recurring statement is often, though not always, born out of the assumption that people with suicidal ideations do not have other people to turn to. In some cases, this could be true, but in many cases, it is not. There is a stigma that surrounds mental health that makes asking for others’ help, especially in an individualistic university like Columbia, daunting. Since living with a mental illness, in the words of writer Anthony James Williams, often “feels like decay in real time,” one is forced to metaphorically trudge through sand as everyone around them glides past, seemingly unimpeded. The last thing a person grappling with a mental illness wants to do is burden the people they love with their traumatic experiences. They’re unlikely to just approach you and share their debilitating daily battles, because they know you’re busy studying for finals.
So, even if people with suicidal ideations are surrounded by loving family and friends, they will often mask their struggles out of fear of being misunderstood, silenced, or seen as a waste of time.
It’s up to us to familiarize ourselves with warning signs of distress. Ask yourself: Is my friend acting differently? Do they refuse every request to grab a meal? Have you not heard back from them in a couple of days? Are they substituting alcohol for every meal? Have they lost interest in the activities that once brought them joy? Do they joke about wanting to harm themselves?
A lot of the habits we have normalized as typical college student behavior are often signs of distress or mental illness. Sacrificing sleep and proper eating habits for a grade should not be seen as a badge of honor. Posts that joke about self-harm in the columbia buy sell memes page shouldn’t be as relatable as they are. Focusing on yourself at the expense of everyone else in your life should not be the normative cultural experience at this university.
Especially now, due to the shortened hours of daylight and pressure from imminent finals, it’s imperative for us to be there for each other.
So, what should we do? We can start off by being present when engaging with our friends. How you approach helping your friend grapple with their mental health should be tailored to your friend’s needs. If a friend says they do not have time for a simple five-minute conversation, it would be difficult for them to spare time for an in-depth, sometimes hours-long, conversation about their mental health. If you notice your friend withdrawing socially, simple actions such as sharing a snack with them can make a difference. You can even ask if it’s okay to simply exist in a space with them where they feel safe. If you notice they haven’t left their room in days, offer to help them clean their room, do their laundry, or do anything to ease their burdens, even in the slightest.
If your friend makes a joke about being depressed, anxious, or suicidal, ask them seriously if everything is alright after the initial comment—humor is often a deceptive coping mechanism. When a marginalized group is targeted in a traumatic event, reach out to your friends who identify with said group and ask what you can do to help. If you sense that you cannot help your friend cope with any of these situations, take the time to help them research options, such as Counseling and Psychological Services or Furman appointments, off-campus therapy, or other avenues of aid.
Of course, offering support is not always easy. Constantly being there for a friend dealing with their mental health issues can be extremely taxing. Make sure you're being honest with yourself and recognizing when you need to focus on your own mental health.
This is not meant to be accusatory. To be clear, it is unfair and cruel to assume that the people closest to victims of suicidal thoughts did not do what they could to ensure that their loved one felt safe and cared for. It is not always possible to “save” individuals, but at least we can try to help them.
Our campus culture should value people for who they are and not what they produce—students should not feel like they need to be ashamed of their daily struggles for the sake of productivity. It’s up to each of us to decide what campus environment we want to live in: one where people are forced to suffer in silence or one where we value each member of our community.
So, this finals season and beyond, make sure to text your friend: “Hey. How are you doing?”
Please contact 1-800-273-8255 for resources and information about suicide prevention. A directory of on-campus mental health resources can be found here.
The author is a sophomore majoring in political science and concentrating in ethnicity and race studies. She is CCSC’s race and ethnicity representative, Office of Multicultural Affairs’ student of color coordinator, and a trainee for Spectator’s opinion section. If you would like to have a chat or have any funny memes you would like to share, her Facebook DMs are always open!
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.