Columns

Sundlee ’16: Kindness is key

By
Opinions Columnist

Last winter, I learned that no fewer than four of my close friends had contemplated suicide during high school or their freshman years of college. Their motivations for considering ending their lives were tangled webs of depression, anxiety, family problems, self-image issues and academic pressures.

I was dumbfounded. To me they had always seemed like relatively contented individuals. I was aware they were going through trials, but I never had any idea their lives were spiraling out of control like this.

Or did I?

I came to doubt myself and became wracked with spasms of guilt when I spoke to these friends. How could I have missed what was happening right under my nose to the people I claim to know better than anyone?

I shouldn’t have been so shocked. Suicide abounds in our age group. Many psychologists today speculate that we’re facing a suicide epidemic. While suicide rates declined in the 1990s, there has been a spike in the last decade, with rates steadily increasing annually. In the developed world, suicide is the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 49. Still, those who suffer from depression and other mental disorders often put on brave faces to spare us from what they see as their own personal burdens. A recent Herald article cites the pervasiveness of anxiety disorders among our students and the stigma they face in being upfront about their condition. There is added pressure here at Brown to seem happy because that state of mind has become so entwined with the identity of the University.

So many of us, myself included, take our friends’ forced laughs and strained smiles as evidence that all is well. Wading into someone else’s mire of problems seems an onerous task — one that can easily be avoided if we just turn a blind eye. Perhaps we tell ourselves that if there is something wrong, there’s nothing we can do anyway — that the individual will only rebuff inquiries.

Obviously, this is untrue. But how can someone who has never experienced depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts hope to help a friend undergoing these hardships? Before the revelations regarding my friends’ suicidal thoughts, I had never even attempted to understand what it meant to be in mental anguish.

Trying to fathom this type of despair when you’ve never felt it yourself is difficult. There is a temptation to dismiss problems like depression and anxiety as symptoms of a society overeager to diagnose and prescribe. There is merit to this claim in some instances, and, on a very broad scale, this is a problem that needs to be addressed. But a personal level between peers, it couldn’t matter less. We are in no position to say that someone doesn’t have the right to feel how they do simply because of their diagnosis status. Some individuals genuinely need medication to function. Others are simply going through a dark period in their lives and are seeking a way to feel well again. General suspicion over mental health diagnoses does not justify neglecting that which we do not understand and prefer not to confront. We contribute nothing constructive in rejecting someone’s mental state just because it seems illogical to us.

After realizing what dire straits my friends were in, I vowed I would do better for them. I wanted to yank them out of their sadness and force them to be well again. It never occurred to me that someone else’s depression was something that I couldn’t heal. But soon I realized that we cannot reason or argue someone out of their despair. We cannot convince people to be happy.

Still, we are not impotent. Ninety percent of those who attempt suicide suffer from psychological ailments, meaning those who try to end their lives do so in reaction to feelings of hopelessness. These are preventable tragedies. We can help others fend off those moments of darkness with encouraging words, a smile or even our simple physical presence. We don’t need to become someone’s entire support structure or therapist. Gestures of affection are all we can offer, and more often than not they will make a difference. Untold numbers of people have been coaxed back from ledges by the quiet goodness of complete strangers. Last week, the New Yorker published the story of Jonny Benjamin, a 20-year-old diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, who intended to take his own life. Just as he was about to hurl himself off the Waterloo Bridge, a man approached him and asked him to get coffee, a simple gesture that assured him everything would get better. Benjamin is now a spokesperson for mental health awareness. The power of basic kindness is too often overlooked. As Philo warned, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

We must try our hardest to be sensitive to those who are living with depression, anxiety or just plain sadness. We are in a fragile part of our lives right now. The stresses of school, being away from home and finding a career are grating on everyone, and it is up to all of us to work to maintain a strong community of sympathetic people.

It is far too easy to turn a blind eye or dismiss someone else’s troubles. Be mindful. Seek to be a source of solace for friends who are overwhelmed. Be kind. Always. We can never know what kind of demons others may be facing.

Robyn Sundlee ’16 hopes others can avoid her blunders. She can be reached at robyn_sundlee@brown.edu.