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Opinion | Anonymous letter challenges the effectiveness of suicide prevention

Nicole's Two Cents

By Nicole Theodore
On April 3, 2014

Her letter was difficult to read, as it was saturated with unanswered questions and resentment toward her own university. The pain and anger were blatant, and even though she chose to remain nameless, her 1,300 word letter represents thousands of Americans who feel they need to keep their mental illness a secret from the outside world. Anonymous is a faceless Miami student, and yet she is not.

"For those in the throes of depression, Miami's attempts to mitigate our ideation seems frivolous and almost seem to alienate some," Anonymous said in "An Open Letter to Miami University about Suicide" submitted to The Miami Student through an online form. "I make this argument because for the past seven years I have thought about suicide frequently, and in the last two to three years, all while I've been at Miami, I have fantasized about committing suicide EVERY DAY."

Anonymous could be the girl who works at King Café, the person you sit next to in chemistry or even your best friend or sorority sister. To think that she is hurting this much while thinking about suicide, is a very serious and startling thought to have in the back of your head. Since I first read this letter, I find my self repeatedly asking, "Who are you and what can we do, as a university and student body, to help you?"

Anonymous didn't leave an email or any form of contact information and she wanted it that way.

"I can't even admit my name to you without worrying that someone will expel me or something," she said. "Part of me hopes to be recognized, but part of me just wants you, whoever you are, to know that this is a much bigger problem than you thought. And that you have been thinking about it in all the wrong ways and from the perspective of a "rational person" who would never do something so heinous."

Since we could not contact the writer of this letter and she chose to remain anonymous, we cannot publish it in it's entirety. However, it is such an important letter that I felt I needed to highlight some of it's points in order to add to the multi-faceted discussion of suicide and mental illness at Miami.

The letter described a life at Miami that doesn't represent the usual smiling brochure-like faces and affluent, beautiful students that walk around campus. This campus provides a magnified view of beauty, money and intelligent people, full of perfectly bleached teeth and pressed Oxford button downs that look good on paper and in a picture. Of course, this isn't everyone, but for someone who feels like they don't fit in, it feels like everyone.

For those who feel like they don't fit into those neatly boxed guidelines, life at Miami can be hell.

Anonymous may in fact look just like everyone else here, but how she feels is a completely different story. Miami's culture is difficult for most students to handle - in a 1999 College Student Survey given to 526 recent graduates, 97 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that a Miami image does exist, but only 57 percent believed that they fit that image.

"The shame is so great, about our illnesses, about our ideation, about missing class because, damn, going outside to face all those sunny, happy, Miami people is just enough to make us want to do ourselves in anyway, that we cover it," Anonymous said. "We hide it. The university looks at those who are depressed as temporarily disabled happy/effective people. So often it is so much more debilitating than that. And we are punished for it."

Anonymous went on to describe her ongoing battle with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), stemming from being beaten by her boyfriend, all the while dealing with issues at The Office of Disability and Resources at Miami and realizing she may never reach her dream of becoming a professor or get her Ph.D.

She often writes suicide notes in class when she feels shut down by a professor and feels that no one understands what's going on in her head, describing it as "a jumble of constant noise."

Anonymous is struggling, and even though Miami has programs out the wazoo for suicide prevention and offices, organizations and counseling services devoted to mental illness, it must not be working for everyone. Why? Why isn't it working for everyone? It's frustrating! It's never ending! What else can be done if there are countless programs and awareness campaigns towards stopping suicide and encouraging students with mental illness to reach out for help?

It may not be working 100 percent because the culture and conversations of mental illness need to drastically shift and change. This isn't just at Miami: this is a much larger issue in the mental health world. Those with mental illness are viewed as "weak," and therapy isn't an "OK" thing to talk about. Medication is often viewed as the "cure all."

Mental illness doesn't work like a broken leg or a headache that is relieved with a signed cast and Advil- it is a deep wound in someone's personal psyche that keeps them from engaging in life.

Writers like Eric G. Wilson who documented his depression in several books, notably "The Mercy of Eternity A Memoir of Depression and Grace," have shown how depression and mental illness is multifaceted and physically apart of the soul and not just a temporary issue.

"When I embraced my sickness, no longer demeaning or ignoring it, I became healthy," he said in a guest blog on Beliefnet. "No longer demonizing my depression, I accepted it for what it was, and is: a part of me like my lungs or larynx, an organ that has made me who I am, with all of my flaws and virtues."

What writers like Wilson and Anonymous in her letter are trying to get across is that depression and mental illness aren't as "fixable" as society thinks. It may linger and challenge those who deal with it for the rest of their lives.

Conversations need to change about mental illness, and even though I do heavily applaud Miami in its programs and efforts to show students the resources available, the culture of the university needs to evolve in terms of mental illness.

This doesn't necessarily start with mental health services here, rather it should start with the student body and professors who are in contact with students who have mental illnesses.

"Miami can't improve its suicide prevention strategies until it starts to have real conversations with students about the nature of suicide and the nature of suicidal ideation," Anonymous said. "Until those who are in power feel the complete agonizing torture of life that we feel when we want to escape from it, they will only ever have ineffectual policies and so-called safety-nets which do literally nothing. Some students might be caught, yes. But these are the students who are experiencing it for the first time, or where this is not routine. It scares them so much more. The exceptionally tortured individuals, those who have been mentally ill for years are so much harder to crack. We have no notions that you understand, nor do we even think your lifelines will help."

Again, anonymous represents millions of people in this struggle. Depression affects more than 14.8 million people in the United States and PTSD hits about 7.7 million Americans age 18 and up, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Of those living and dealing with mental illness, 85 percent of those people receive no treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This is a problem.

I want to end this column with Anonymous' description of maybe a typical day for her at Miami. Please remember that this is a fellow student, a friend and someone's daughter or sibling. Depression isn't being weak or not being able to deal with a bad day - it's a real issue, and one that should be treated as such and it should be easier for people with it to talk about.

"None of you understand what it is to want to kill yourself," Anonymous said. "My head is just a jumble of constant noise. Any form of anxiety reduces me down into a non-operational lump of flesh. Sometimes any kind of perceived aggression, even from a television show or movie or book, will cause me to take off and find a small dark enclosed space to hide for a while. Walking back from class, every day, I feel my head exploding from a well-placed shot to the brain. Or I feel my lungs filling up with water. Or I see the ground rushing up to meet me. I see and feel all of this, and it seems as if it's on rotation in my mind, constantly replaying and haunting me."

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