September was Suicide Prevention Month. Mental health and suicide prevention messages were well seen around my institution, many coming out of my own office. My social media continues to be interspersed with posts, infographics, and statics all along these same messages. And just as it does when I see this subject, mental images and memories float to my mind of one of the guiding reasons around why I went into Student Affairs – his name was Hayden.
Hayden was bright kid, smart, extremely funny, quite athletic that was balanced out with a candy coating of general nerdiness. He would read fantasy novels in the corner of the weight room in high school; they broke the mold with this kid. I met him when I was young, and I thought her was super cute and funny even then. In many ways we grew up together, and we grew closer when I got to college and he started to look for where he would go after high school graduation. I keep talking about him in the past-tense for a reason. In May of 2012, after completing his first year of college, Hayden died by his own hands.
In fact, that summer I lost four friends in the span of five weeks in one way or another, but it was Hayden’s death that hit me the hardest. I was twenty and had learned the hard lesson that I have seen my own students learn as well: young people are not invincible.
I spent the summer working at my undergraduate institution and what time I was not working was mostly spent in isolation. My outlook went from my usual brightness to something darker. I did not realize how deep in a hole I was until I was out of it. Enter the other inspirations for my career in SA: Heather and Sarah.
These women are what I aim to be as professionals. The careful nuisance in which they approached me was akin to someone coming upon a wounded deer. I’m not one to ask for help, and would rebuff the harder “something is going on with you” that many times we are encouraged to implement as professionals. Both Heather and Sarah provided open ears as well as open door: they were there. We often didn’t talk about what was going on, but they were happy to talk about classes, my senior thesis, my family, or really just shoot the breeze. I have tried to thank Heather and Sarah both for what they did for me, saying I wouldn’t be where I am without them. They both brush off my thanks, but I am firm in my belief that their influence and support got me here. They inspired me to go into Student Affairs, but most importantly, they took the time and care to be stay with me until I climbed out of the dark I was in. It was my time with them that helped me
I was not suicidal, but there are many similarities to Hayden’s story and my own. Both of us were college students, only a year apart in age. A life and self that used to be happy had turned to something unfamiliar. My sunny skies turned black, and I was left in the downpour. However, I found myself out of the rain by amazing allies who were happy to hold the umbrella for me.
Think about the students that come into your offices for a moment. The ones who always seem to come in when you’re in the middle of something. All they want to do is talk, and all you want to do is work through your to-do list. But in case you did not know – there are many times when a chat is not just a chat. Sometimes students can’t admit they need assistance, or they know they need something, but don’t know what. Sometimes talking about the game last weekend, the weather, or some homework they have is a ploy to test the water. Even those students who do not come to you, but you say hello to every time you see them, benefit from your presence. We often do not know as professionals how our presence itself is impactful.
We often hear that we should send them off to counseling and leave the issues to psychological professionals. This is sound advice, but do not take it as the end. PLEASE keep encouraging students to go seek therapy, but do not leave them after that. It is paramount to keep the option to speak to you open as well. Know your limits as a professional, but if you can be a listening ear, you might be that foothold that the student needs to keep climbing out of their darkness. The numbers of college students who commit suicide or harm themselves in another way are painfully high. Students do not have to be a statistics.
A word, a minute, a small piece of encouragement, or just being a constant figure can impact a student beyond what you know. Spare a moment, save a life.