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What College Graduation Means to Me As a Suicide Attempt Survivor

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

For four years, I’ve been blessed to study at my dream university, and a couple of days ago my time in undergrad came to a close. I can now say, confidently and honestly, that I am a college graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience. In those four years, I experienced some of the best times of my life, but also some of the most challenging. I made and lost friendships, experienced love and heartbreak for the first time, excelled in some classes and failed others, and made great strides and slip-ups in managing my health. For many graduates, the time after their last semester is characterized by self-reflection and looking back on the past to take inventory of the lessons learned in and out of the classroom. I found myself doing exactly this, and while examining my time at college in the context of my mental health, I discovered something that was probably a little repressed, and brought new meaning to my graduation.

In a couple of months, I will “celebrate” (yes, that is the accurate word for me) another milestone: four years since my first, and only, admission to a psychiatric hospital. I was there for nine days for active suicidal ideation and self-harm behaviors. After the hospital, life wasn’t just smooth sailing as I naively expected. College presented new and unexpected challenges for me, and it was here I began outpatient therapy and psychiatric medications. But these are not the things that have given more weight and importance to my graduation. It’s the fact that, for good chunks of time dispersed over the past eight years of high school and college, I gave up hope for graduating and fully expected I would be dead by now.

My suicidal ideation did not evaporate as I wanted it to when I came to school. It lingered, wavered and at times grew stronger. I continued to deal with the same suicidal thoughts I had in high school, the ones that led me to the hospital. I wrote letters, fully expecting they would be read by someone other than me someday. I contemplated details for how to make my death as non-burdensome on my family as possible. My junior year I was lucky to survive an attempt, and I can say without exaggeration that that changed my life forever. But even after my attempt, my suicidal ideation didn’t go away.

Due to a toxic culture often found in higher education, though rarely discussed openly, many students feel an overwhelming pressure to not only survive college but to excel beyond expectation. I’ve had friends who took on full class loads, internships and jobs at the same time because they felt anything less wasn’t good enough. I fell victim to this mindset and bound my self-worth to my grades. Like I said, my degree is in neuroscience, and STEM majors and degrees are notoriously difficult. I had classes in everything from the basic sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) to the much more nuanced and complex (developmental neuroscience, molecular neurobiology, etc.) These are not easy classes to take, even for the most talented and intelligent students. But I had to manage these classes while also juggling unstable mental illnesses (including ADHD, considered a learning disability) and deteriorating physical health. When I failed a chemistry class, I can tell you honestly that I thought my life was over. When I almost failed a different chemistry class, I was convinced my life no longer had any value, hope, and that I was not just failing, but I was a failure. Failing a class became my identity. I am not unique in this. Many college students, regardless of their major, tie themselves to their GPAs and transcripts, fueled by a culture that demands constant and ever-growing excellence in everything we do.

When my interpersonal relationships (friendships and romantic alike) fell apart, it felt like I was unlovable, a burden, and that I would never be a good friend or partner. In some ways, I still deal with these things. But again, I am not alone in this. College is almost characterized by going through ups and downs with all kinds of relationships. It’s a microcosm for how the real world works. Learning to manage heartbreak or fighting with friends is never fun, and if internalized, can take a real toll on someone’s confidence and self-esteem. But why am I explaining all this? These experiences occur every day with students around the world, yet aren’t openly discussed or dealt with as much as they should be. But besides that, these things can serve as the starting point for unhealthy and dangerous mindsets, like suicidal ideation. And this doesn’t even factor in preexisting mental illnesses like depression and anxiety in college students which can only exacerbate things.

Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in the United States. Approximately 1,100 students every year die by suicide. One in every ten college students will seriously consider attempting suicide. There is data to suggest the disproportionate rates of suicide attempts and deaths in college students is directly related to their academic success, or perception of failure, as well as other habits college culture can encourage like alcohol and drug use (though addiction among college students is an entirely different topic). College communities are always devastated when a life is lost to suicide. But what about those students who attempt? If they are anything like me, their attempt likely included thoughts about how, if they died by suicide, that would mean not graduating. To put it rather bluntly because of the severity of this crisis: dead college students don’t graduate. Our attempts also often stay hidden, unspoken, and a close secret we hide, if possible. I know I haven’t told many people about my attempt because I feared the repercussions and reactions. Now that I am done with school, I feel the freedom to speak about it, but not everyone is like me.

This month, millions of college students around the world will celebrate their academic achievements with a shiny new degree. Similarly, many of those college students will have a new degree that they likely imagined they would never receive. Framing graduation this way, for me, made it take on an entirely new meaning. I do remember very vividly mourning the loss of my future, the loss of my graduation because of my suicide attempt. I did this many times, more times than I’d like to admit. But today, and every day going forward, I can boast in the fact that I lived through college and came out the other side with a degree in a field I love. I don’t have a great GPA, I didn’t get any Latin honors, and there is still a big letter F on my transcript. But none of that matters now. I survived, and I got to graduate when I didn’t expect I would even be alive to see the day.

For my fellow graduates, near and far, congratulations on your achievements! For those who considered and/or attempted suicide in your college career (or anytime in your life, frankly), you have accomplished something greater. If you imagined that you wouldn’t be here today, then you’ve overcome one of the most difficult mental struggles a person can experience, and that is cause for celebration even more. If I take anything away from my time in college, it’s this: I have control over how I want to define myself. I defined myself by my academic and relational failures, and that was wrong and unhealthy. Today, and every day, I’m going to make the conscious decision to recognize my inner worth and value regardless of the outside world. And every time I look at my diploma, I’m going to smile, as I remember that my dreams for a successful future overcame my darkest hour.

Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

Originally published: May 19, 2021
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