By Lily Zheng
Content warning: suicide, self-harm
I know I have the reputation of always seeing the glass as half-empty. In the three years I’ve written for the Stanford Daily, that’s been the hallmark of my writing – critical, indignant and biting. I write about campus issues, in particular, to combat the pristine image of this university that Stanford tries to paper over the real issues facing students here; I think it’s necessary, but often wish I didn’t have to do it.
I attended the second annual Out of the Darkness campus walk on Sunday, April 24, and hoped that I would end up having few critiques of the event. Even I want to write a positive column once in awhile. The weather was perfect – at the event, I was greeted with enthusiastic volunteers and several tables overflowing with pastries and coffee, Gatorade and fruit and granola bars. It was clear that a tremendous and impressive amount of energy had gone into planning and organizing the event. I was pleasantly hopeful.
I’m sitting in CoHo writing this column, and frustrated at how frustrated I am right now.
Suicide is not an easy topic to broach. As somebody who has survived years of suicidal ideation, I respect all those who experience and persevere through it, through the manageable moments and the terrifying lows, the loneliness and isolation. I respect the strength and resilience of those who rely on self-harm or other coping mechanisms society deems unhelpful, those with identities and experiences that aren’t pleasant or respectable in the eyes of would-be allies and saviors.
I was stunned, accordingly, to see an event centered on the experiences of survivors – not of suicide, but of suicide loss, the experience of losing a friend or loved one to suicide. Speaker after speaker spoke about resilience and support for those affected by another’s suicide, to enthusiastic nods from the crowd, while I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
Suicide loss is, without a doubt, important. On average, a completed suicide affects at least six others, leading to feelings of anger, loss, disappointment, self-blame and bewilderment that may linger for years. The mental health difficulties associated with this are real and substantial, and because of the stigma in our society against talking openly about mental health, many survivors of suicide loss lack support or resources to heal. All of this is, without a doubt, important.
Yet, in an event about suicide awareness, I was disappointed to see so little space, energy or time devoted to understanding why people attempt suicide. I thought about the mental health crisis in Native and indigenous communities in North America and around the world, on the terrifying day just a few weeks ago when 11 members of a First Nations community all attempted suicide. I thought about trans teens, 13 times more likely to attempt suicide if rejected by their parents, and the trans population as a whole, with 41 percent attempting suicide at least once in their lifetimes.
Marginalized communities are in a state of emergency, and suicide rates are in no small way linked to the larger environmental factors of marginalization and oppression. Factors that put people at increased risk for suicidal ideation include poverty, drug abuse, family rejection, discrimination, physical abuse and incarceration. Is it surprising, then, that Black and brown peoples, gender and sexual minorities and otherwise stigmatized and oppressed communities are at particular risk for suicide?
Suicide is one of the many, many indications of the state of emergency facing our communities – but we fixate on it because it’s visible, because it affects others besides the individual, because its ripple effects shake our faith in ourselves and the institutions we believe in. We are less concerned, publicly, with mental health issues, with minority stress and depression, anxiety and trauma – even though the same factors that lead to suicide attempts also affect mental health. Thus, it’s not enough for suicide awareness to just be about the isolated issue of suicide. Raising awareness means diagnosing our society’s broken and failing support systems, under-resourced communities and malicious and predatory structures that combine to create and maintain health disparities for marginalized people over their entire lives.
But there was none of that at the Out of the Darkness event. Instead, I was told, as a survivor, to prioritize “self-care” and make sure to “reach out when I need it and accept help when offered.” (Unless, of course, that suggestion was intended for allies and survivors of suicide loss and not me.) I got the sense that suicide was a terrible issue that came down hardest on friends and family; I got the sense that, for those struggling from or survivors of suicide attempts themselves, their issues were relatively homogenous.
I left the event before the march took place.
I’m still frustrated with how strongly I reacted. I know how passionately many of the organizers and volunteers feel about destigmatizing mental illness and conversations about mental health, and raising awareness about suicide. I recognize that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the nonprofit that helped put on the event, sincerely cares about these issues and does what it can to aid in prevention, interventions, education and advocacy. But single-issue politics of this sort, that don’t acknowledge the complex ways in which society’s shortcomings all intersect, don’t work. There is nothing that exists on its own in this society, and suicide is no exception. We cannot raise awareness about mental health or suicide without being explicit and intentional about who we want to help, and why they are hurting. If there’s anything we need to bring Out of the Darkness, it’s that idea.
Contact Lily Zheng at [email protected]