How Outpatient Treatment After a Suicide Attempt Inspired Me to Help Others Like Me
To get your license and a car meant to get the independence that the Constitution granted you. On October 15th, 2018, I lost that independence. I lost more than just my ability to drive myself; I lost my ability to eat with supervision, shower without the door closed and take medicine without it being handed to me. I called my mom that brisk October day as I walked home from class at my university. “Mom,” I told her, “I am suffering. I want to die. I need help. I need help, now.”
“Dad will come get you, he will be there in 30 minutes,” my mom said over the phone. To surrender independence as an adult meant to lose the ability to take care of yourself. I surrendered.
I had three days before I began my outpatient treatment at United Hospital in St. Paul. In those three days, I had to coordinate with my professors, counseling health and services, Student Senate and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to remain enrolled while not attending class. Treatment was 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, for three weeks. For three weeks I was not going to attend class. Yet, I wanted to remain enrolled in school. While I begged to convince my professors to work with me during this time, the university prodded at me to withdraw, even with seven weeks left of the semester. It was harder to communicate my sudden time off with professors than it was harder to go through therapy. I felt like the first student that needed to go to treatment because the process I endured was disorganized. Every professor is different. Some of my professors told me to simply withdraw from classes due to the length of time I was taking off; other professors worked politely with me to make a plan of action for where I can make up points from doing school from home, and some professors threatened to remove me from the class due to my absence. I am middle class and I could not afford to lose the money I put into the semester. So, while I was preparing to admit to the hospital, I had to stress about my future, and my finances, in the university.
My mother was possibly more stressed than I was, though. She had to watch her middle child, the one with a brutal childhood and lifelong depression, throw up over the sink after a suicide attempt. She applied through the Family Medical Leave Act to take time off from her work as a flight attendant to watch me. With that, she also researched all the mental health psychiatrists in the state of Minnesota, get recommendations and make appointments. There is no roadmap or guideline book to help you through situations like this. Do I get a psychologist? Psychiatric doctor? Treatment? Where do we go? Where do we start? Who is the best in the area? My mom said, “it has been a full-time job trying to find you the right doctors, communicate with Delta and watch you every day.” I was not the only one that felt suffering. My parents hurt, too. We all felt the presence of suffering and death, as if the Grim Reaper slept in our home, ate our food and breathed the air we breathed.
Wake up at 7 a.m. Shower, dress, brush teeth, attempt to eat breakfast, get in the car with Mom, drive 30 minutes to downtown St. Paul, get dropped off on the street and walk into the hospital. This was my routine every day for three weeks. It was more mundane and sad than the Minnesota weather in late spring. Take the elevator to the sixth floor, walk through three doors, take a seat in the treatment room with 12 other suffering adults. In the early morning, everyone in the group had little to talk about, but the strain in the air debilitated us all, therefore we attempted to make small talk as if we were functioning adults, but the only noise that filled the air was the emptiness of all our broken hearts and unforgiven pasts. Conversation was dry and desperate and screamed for assistance like we were, too.
Treatment was the same every day. First, you had to tell the group if you were suicidal the night before, tried to self-harm and ate dinner. Then, you moved into dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) lessons, which were basically mindfulness boot camp sessions. Interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, anger management — these were the lessons we studied. It felt pathetic to be in a room full of grown adults who had to relearn how to manage simple emotional skills, as if we all missed the most basic aspects of being a person. Then, it was lunchtime. The therapists handed us our lunch coupon, then as a group we took the elevator back to the first floor, got food and took a seat at the same table. The cafeteria was filled with doctors, nurses and families with sick family members. Our table stood out like a pathetic sore thumb on a hand model. We were the treatment patients. We all had tangled hair like a forest canopy after a deep storm, dirty sweatpants and bitten-down fingernails. Our faces were pale and desperate. We were all dead inside and out.
After lunch was group therapy. In this two-hour session, we all talked about our problems, listened to each other, and offered advice if wanted. I remember the girl who had a voice louder than thunder. She was in treatment for extreme anger problems. Then, there was the recently divorced gay man, who wanted so bad to die after his husband cheated and left him for another man in California. Then there was a boy a year younger than me, who had been in two treatment programs before this. He struggled with extreme, debilitating panic attacks at work. I cannot forget the university student who dropped out. She and her girlfriend were abusive to each other and she too tried to die by the same method as I did. We became a pack of best friends for those three weeks. At breaks, we would go into the parking garage, listen to hardcore music and smoke cigarettes. When Mac Miller’s “Come Back to Earth” played, we too wanted a way to get out of our heads. Those moments in the parking garage felt more normal to me than I had felt in forever.
Hospitals feel like death prisons. United Hospital is connected to the Children’s Hospital of Minnesota. In the treatment room, there was a large wall of windows. These windows were the only view of the outside world we had. Except, right outside the windows was the helicopter landing pad. Unfortunately, the only patients that came out of those helicopters were young children. Each time a helicopter landed outside the window, a presence of death loomed in the room and in our minds, louder and scarier than even the worst storm. While we were a group of struggling adults, we suffered even more knowing that a child was in that helicopter, in a fight with their life, when we all wanted to end ours. It is funny how perspective can work.
At the end of your three weeks in treatment, everyone had to go around the room and say their goodbyes to you, and you had to give your goodbye to the group. Treatment programs are fluid. People start and finish their three weeks on a cycle, therefore, in the short time of your stay in the hospital, many people will, and do, change your entire existence. The divorced gay man was the carrier of our conversations on my bad days. He understood that sometimes I could not give back to the conversation, but he knew I was listening. I met two old women who became mother-like figures for me. They took care of me. They told me stories of their children and how it made them happy to believe I was going to succeed someday. They said they would be the first people in line at the polls when I run for president someday. I think of the woman who said I was beautiful in every way, especially my personality. The Black girl with a roaring voice — she always made us laugh, in even the hardest situations. I taught a man to wrap tape around his arm when he felt the need to self-harm. It worked for me. I gave him two rolls of tape and on my last day, he said I saved his life.
I have a notebook filled with post-it notes with personalized messages from people in treatment. We wrote them to each other. I read these when I am struggling to remember to love myself. People with significant and outstanding mental health issues are walking paradoxes; we want everyone to be and feel better. We root for everyone, but we forget to root for ourselves. I felt more safety and love in the people I interacted with during treatment than I had felt in a very long time from friends and family. Remember to be kind to people. More importantly, remember to be kind to yourself. It was not the treatment that taught me this. It was the people.
I struggled to sleep during those three weeks. Many of my nights were spent looking at the stars through my bedroom window and reminiscing on the life I once had — one where happiness filled my heart and soul like a sink overflowed for days on end. At the time I went to treatment, I was student body president. I had advocacy in my blood. In the depth of the night, my mind had a breakthrough. I thought, there had been no way I was the first student to undergo a significant life event and wanted to remain in classes. I thought of all the college students who struggled with suicidal thoughts, severe depression and other mental health issues. I realized, however, that students do not know that a situation like mine was possible — 73% of students with a mental health condition experience a crisis on campus, 64% of students with a mental health condition quit school for mental health-related reasons, and 34.2% of students with a mental health condition said their college did not know about their crisis. Instead, students across the nation drag their depressed and suicidal asses to class every day because they think there are no other options. Therefore, I wrote the Student Medical Leave Act, a policy bill that would require universities to make reasonable accommodations for a student who undergoes significant life events, such as treatment, sick family members or sick children, and remain enrolled and active in classes, as an online learner, rather than withdraw or medically withdraw from the semester. I do not find it acceptable that society thinks a student must “push through” 14 weeks of a semester during times of crisis. Students’ lives are not set in 14-week blocks. We have real issues that arise, and while it would be convenient to deal with those issues over summer break, it is unrealistic.
While battling my severe depression, chronic suicidal ideation, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), social anxiety, panic attacks and dissociation, I worked endlessly to spread the word about the Student Medical Leave Act. I also spent my 21st birthday in treatment. I lobbied the policy to the Wisconsin legislators, every student senate in the UW-System and advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. I struggle with my own issues. I have run a marathon before, but to get out of bed on my worst days have been harder than a 26.2 mile run in the summer heat. However, I was no longer going to watch news accounts of college and high school students die by suicide almost every day. I applaud universities and colleges for mental health awareness weeks and free counseling services. Except, essential oils, dog “therapy” and stress-ball projects will not help students with severe medical diagnoses. Some students need more professional help.
When the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruled its decision in the Olmstead v. LC case, it stated that mental health, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, is considered a form of disability. It ruled isolation of an individual with a disability is a form of discrimination because it “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that person so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.” Was I unworthy of being a student on campus because I had to go to treatment? When I was suggested to “withdraw and take time to focus on myself,” I was being asked to isolate myself from the campus community. The Olmstead v LC case determined that “[Isolation] severely diminished the everyday life activities that individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.” I did not need to isolate myself from the community at that time. I already had been isolating myself from the world due to the severely depressed state I was in. When I decided to go to treatment, I needed community, culture, and school to bring me back to the healthy state of mind I was hoping to gain from treatment.
It is now 2020, and while I am well-aware of the advocacy push for mental health has surfaced over the past few years, I feel there is surface-level action being taken into account for it. The American with Disabilities Act, Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Higher Education Act, and Individuals with Disabilities Act, are all top leading documents that protect citizens and students, however, there is little language in each of these documents pertaining to student mental health, the reason being they were written long before the push for mental health advocacy began, therefore making some of the protections in these documents not up to date. Universities and colleges cannot claim to support students in the time of need if they do not include significant mental health in that support.
In treatment programs, they tell you that recovery does not happen just by getting treatment. It is an all-hands-on-deck operation with your medicine, therapist, psychiatric doctor, family, and yourself. There are many parts to a recovery path than just one piece of the puzzle. Universities should understand that they play a part in that, too, since, again, campuses all over the nation are advocating more and more for mental health; therefore, if campuses, on the surface level are advocating for mental health, they must all-hands-on-deck support their students. An affected person’s recovery plan must include the university.
My story does not represent every student, and the Student Medical Leave Act may not fit every circumstance that arises. There are unique circumstances for every person and situation. However, the Student Medical Leave Act would be the first of its kind to protect students and move toward a culture that respects students. My mom once told me, “try to find happiness in the small things. You struggle so bad already. I just want you to be happy.” I know I cannot change the world and it is depressing to think none of us can. The world is a very nasty and sick place. There is shame, guilt and anxiety rummaging through the air and filling our lungs. I cannot change that. But it is important to find happiness when our brains do not produce it themselves. The people in treatment brought me happiness. To eat ice cream in bed with my mother brings me happiness. A walk down a river brings me happiness. I would have isolated myself into an even deeper black hole if I had not surrendered myself to receive professional help and assistance in everyday activities. I have learned it is the people we surround ourselves with who make us the happiest, and they are the ones who will impact your life greater than a 4.0 GPA.
Today, I still struggle with my mental health and no day is ever easy. I have graduated from college. I take a slew of medicine to control my emotions. I attend therapy three times a week to continue my progress in practicing mindfulness skills. I am still, endlessly, advocating for student’s mental health rights. They say, “time heals all wounds,” but it does not; medicine, therapy, mindfulness, family and friends heal wounds. Be kind and gentle to those we love, to those we meet, and to those we lose.
Photo by Shotlist on Unsplash