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Empathy is important, even when you're joking

It really snuck up on me.

I was sitting in class last week, waiting for lecture to begin, when two girls walked by.

"I have so much homework this weekend, it just makes me want to kill myself," one of them said.

Suddenly, there was no way I could focus on astronomy. I spent the next 15 minutes taking deep breaths and trying to blink back tears.

Our generation has a twisted way of talking about issues sometimes. We're prone to exaggeration in general, and the more dramatically we complain, the funnier we find it. I'm no exception. But since losing my brother to suicide in August, hearing these kinds of comments is a shock every time.

It's true that dark humor can sometimes function as a coping mechanism. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, these comments, even if they are meant as jokes, can be warning signs of suicide, and no passerby can necessarily tell what you mean. To joke about suicide and mental health can trivialize these issues and be stigmatizing for the people who are actually struggling.

Those people make up a great deal of any campus population. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four Americans ages 18 to 24 have a diagnosable mental illness and suicide is the third leading cause of death on college campuses.

This "edgy" humor problem is very specific to our generation, possibly stemming from the internet culture we've grown up with. Perhaps the ways in which the majority of our social interaction has moved online have desensitized us to the human reactions our words can cause.

The need to express what we think and how we feel in punchy tweets and Instagram captions has led to ridiculous hyperbole as we search for the words with the most emotional impact.

It's one thing when I can see it coming. But if I'm sitting in class, I don't want to hear that your workload makes you want to kill yourself.

On my best days, a comment like that will throw me off balance - maybe just a discrete tear. On my worst, I have to walk out of the room.

I don't mean to imply that I've never made these kind of stupid comments. I shudder to think about the consequences, if the worst off-hand comments I made in high school were overheard by people suffering. But, the fact is, comments like that were never really funny.

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Recently Roseanne Barr joked about being suicidal after being fired from ABC. "I'd never kill myself because that would make too many f***ing people happy, and I'm not about making people happy," she said.

I know people don't generally mean to be hurtful, but the fact is that kind of attempt at humor is really upsetting and, yeah, triggering. It's seen as sort of avant-garde. It's meant to be provocative. But at the risk of sounding like a total hippie, isn't the most radical, the most counter-cultural thing we could do is to conduct ourselves with as much love for our fellow humans as possible?

Having realized just how precious life is, I would rather spend it making sure the people around me feel loved, or at least comfortable, and are laughing at actual jokes.

We have no idea what the people around us are going through at any given time, and it costs us nothing to act with as much empathy as possible.

If you or someone you care about is depressed or may be at risk of suicidal thinking, please refer to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1 (800) 273-8255.