The suicide of a college student. The disappearance of another from a busy street. Both in my local community. Both within the past three weeks. One remains an active effort with the hope for a positive resolution. The other no longer does.
A young man I know well called just prior to Thanksgiving, telling me that the roommate of a friend had just committed suicide. On campus and in their shared room. A college student approaching the finish line toward graduation with a full life yet to be lived. His friend needed short-term housing until alternate living arrangements could be made. I heard the pressing need, yet the only thing that registered was that another promising young adult was in so much pain that ending it all seemed to be the only way out.
The raised voices about removing the stigmas and providing better access to mental health care are being heard. Identifying young people who are struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues is critically important, but that’s only one side of the coin. There's another side, one that requires us to dig deep, that's as important if not moreso.
Like flipping a light switch, children cross a “magical threshold” into the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood when they turn 18. Never mind that a child's brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25. The welcome mat is thrown down and we hope for the best.
So what happens. They find themselves navigating classes, working to maintain their grades, handling their self-care and finances, dealing with roommate and peer issues, figuring out new environments and expectations…a host of demands that would tax even the most prepared young adult. Yet many are simply ill-prepared and not ready despite what the law says.
Along with reaching this passage to adulthood comes the accompanying challenges and obstacles that prevent and preclude friends, professors, and others from being able to step in when a student is in crisis. And this doesn’t even touch on the "red tape" issues facing parents who are trying to get their children the help they so desperately need. And often times from afar.
College is a “hot topic” today – in fact, I just blogged about it. The cost of attendance, whether college is worth the investment of time and money, and the safety of students ... all important issues. Yet attention to the fact that the lives of many of these young adults are balancing on a tightrope because they are unable to handle the pressures seems to be missing in these discussions. They're slipping and some of these cracks in their new-found adult lives are swallowing them whole. And forever.
There is shared grief here … this student’s friends who knew there were issues yet did not know what to do or where to turn. This student’s parents who may have been unaware of the extent of their child’s difficulties or had been unsuccessfully trying to secure help. And the grief that we all need to share because of the lack of safety nets for our 18 - 21-year-old children who are dealing with depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol issues, and other issues that are pushing them to despair.
I’m a parent too. Of a young adult who has also experienced difficulties. I know the fights involved and the “systems” that work against parents in the quest of their lives. Few things cut through a person’s existence like feeling helpless … like knowing someone is struggling yet being told that information cannot be shared … like knowing that the line between having another day to fight and the last day can be hair thin.
My heart goes out to this student. No child -- and yes, whether 18 or 25, they are still children -- should be alone, unable to cope, and without the supports they need. There are resources such as Active Minds (www.activeminds.org) working hard to raise awareness and garner support for college students with mental health issues. We hear about these stories every day. Yet when it happens to your child or in your community, it drives home the fact that some things have to change. What are we waiting for?
-Debra I. Schafer, CEO