Silence is Deadly

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Someone else I know killed himself recently. This now makes three since May.

I’m starting to become so used to this that one of my first thoughts was at least this one didn’t jump off a bridge.

I’m not apathetic; I’m just so goddamn tired of losing my friends and I’m fully expecting yet another horrible phone call any moment.

This one was a friend from writing school who graduated with me in May, but I knew him through mutual friends before that.

Everyone is being very quiet about his death. There’s been no mention of it on social media and one of Matt’s* writer friends from outside the walls of our program wrote a lovely tribute to him on her official website.

That’s it. There will be no memorial. No emails have been sent out by our program at our university. I am not even in the same country where Matt lived and I had to text people who knew him, had him over for parties at their house weeks before, and routinely saw him at literary events in Vancouver, to tell them that he was gone.

A friend from the writing program will be staging an ‘unofficial reading’ of his work amongst an exclusive invite list of friends. People were told to keep it quiet and that under no circumstances was this to be widely advertised or talked about.

I’ve heard conflicting stories, but the overall sentiment has been the same; certain people don’t want the nature of his death spoken about, so keep it quiet.

It feels so utterly wrong.

Matt’s death is an injustice on one level, but the silence around it is terrible on a whole other level. Without revealing identifying information, I will say that he spent a lot of his time teaching writing to marginalized groups in Vancouver. Many of the people he routinely taught just needed a place and space to leave behind the drugs, their demons, their poverty, and do something cathartic for a few hours a day. He taught them to write their truth and use their struggles and experiences to educate, inspire, and to create great art.

We’re all learning now that he had his own obstacles he was living with, but he put them aside to show others how to save themselves with their words.

By writing this I’m probably doing the exact opposite of what Matt might have wanted on so many levels. He wasn’t interested in drawing attention to himself to make his point, but he wanted to allow others– who ordinarily wouldn’t have had the space to make their voices heard– the chance to finally find their own.

I admired him so much for that and I wish he had known that.

But despite the taboo nature of this, despite the wishes of friends or family, I’m starting to wonder if maybe none of that really matters and that this might be more important than what he would have wanted, or what anyone else wants really.

When I had to tell a friend up north about Matt’s death one of the things she said was that his death seemed so unnecessary, so I’m making a conscious choice here and now for it to mean something.

The way my university—and many other universities—handles students and recent graduates struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, trauma or a host of other issues, has been abysmal at best. I won’t speak for Matt because I don’t completely know what his situation was, but I’ll speak for the experiences I have knowledge of, including my own.

A year after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD, I moved back to Canada to grad school, and my counselor in Portland called up to Counselling Services at UBC. He told them that I should be enrolled in their services as part of my treatment plan, and they agreed. When I arrived for classes I went to Brock Hall and within fifteen minutes the counselor declared that I was not bipolar, but she couldn’t help me unless I had something small going on—like “boy trouble”—and that I would need to go to a private counselor, who would cost way more than I could afford on a student budget, due to the ‘complexity’ of my ‘problems’.

I, of course, never did that and went to the bar with my fellow writers for the next two years instead.

When I was an undergraduate and not wanting to seem like a narc, I insinuated to a professor that I was concerned about a student because she had indicated sometimes she heard voices and came to school high, a lot. It was then insinuated back to me that she would be graduating soon.

The year before I first came to Canada as a 19 year old for school, a girl committed suicide in the residence hall I would end up living in. When a couple of the boys who had been there the year before would try to bring it up in front of residence advisors, they were always told to drop the subject.

As a teaching assistant in the Creative Writing department, we would often see writing that dealt with mental health difficulties that needed to be addressed by professionals at Counselling Services. Usually they weren’t addressed in a satisfying manner for anyone involved in the situation, including the students we would refer.

This is not exclusive to the university that I attended I’ve discovered. Susannah Feinstein’s editorial about her experience with Mental Health Services at McGill University went viral in September.

Having a few posters up with crisis-line numbers and handing out orange rubber suicide prevention bracelets in February, does not constitute having real dialogues with students about the status of their mental health, or the stigma that surrounds getting help. You can’t just pin up those posters or hand out marketing materials, say, “mission accomplished” and walk away.

This cone of silence the writers and professors I know are abiding by sends a strong message not only to me, but also to all that knew Matt; the way he died was something to be ashamed of. It helps perpetuate the stigma that surrounds the act of just saying, “I think I need help”. Consider that people like Dr. Kay Jamison Redfield have studied how the artistically inclined are more prone to mental health struggles. Matt and I were not the only writers at our university dealing with mental health issues, and there will be many more in future cohorts.

Consider the message your silence is sending to all of us. Matt’s struggles, or mode of death, only defines him if you decide they are something that is so shameful they shouldn’t be talked about openly and honestly.

While on one of my most recent trips back to Vancouver to visit friends, I went out to dinner with a classmate from the writing program. We talked to each other very openly and honestly about our mental health struggles for the first time and the lack of resources available for those in school and especially for recent graduates. When we finished she said, “I’m so glad we could have this conversation”

“Why do you think we couldn’t before?” I asked and after debating it for some time we decided that even the topic was considered so taboo, that even mentioning feeling depressed around professors and administrators was considered automatically synonymous with wanting to commit suicide.

“It’s like they’re worried about some sort of contagion by people even saying ‘I’m really depressed right now’, but in reality by letting us be able to say that, to connect to each other in that way, maybe that’s all we need to feel like we aren’t so alone.”

We had that conversation in March and eight months later I have three dead friends and a lot more who remain silent.

The friend who told me Matt was dead said it best the other day: “And now we’re all sad in silos.”

(*name changed.)

Please consider contacting the following organizations if you’d like to help combat stigma and fight for better mental health services:

In the US, NAMI: the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In Canada, CMHA: The Canadian Mental Health Association. 

3 thoughts on “Silence is Deadly

  1. I can relate to so many things that you have written. I have suffered from depression at many points in my life, but have managed to cope up with it. One has to realize that one’s life is not just about himself/herself, but there also people around you of whose life you are a significant part.
    You have put it all very well and I strongly believe that sadness or pain can be better tackled by sharing it with someone.

    Like

  2. I am so sorry for your loss. My personal experience in the US has shown me how dismal mental health care is, especially in Universities. My counselors at school did little to actually help me learn how to cope with the stress of life, school, and growing up. I was once prescribed Adderol because I was depressed and sleeping 15+ hours a day. An anti-depressant and thyroid medication would’ve helped a lot, but instead of doing a simple blood test and giving me some actual mental healthcare, they gave me legal speed. My body is very sensitive to substances of all kinds. I ended up in a drug induced rage storming down 13th avenue in Eugene looking to pick a fight, (after having tossed a Monopoly game at a friend,) then went back to the student union, kicked down some signs, and was brought home by Campus Police. I flushed those pills down the toilet.
    I bounced from anti-depressant to anti-depressant, putting up with side effects for years until I found one that worked (in 2005, after I graduated.) I self medicated with alcohol and cutting. I considered suicide many times. I was the “crazy girl” freshman year, and the dorm had a “crazy girl” every year. This “crazy girl” was maligned, made fun of, considered a sad drama queen.
    But I’m not crazy. The stigma of mental illness is crippling, and does harm. People need to talk about these things. We need to acknowledge pain. I feel like we are not allowed to have negative feelings. If you aren’t allowed to feel them, then how can you heal them? You don’t. You end up with self abusing, miserable people who live in suffering, or, they end their lives.

    Like

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