The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College drove me to the brink of suicide

The author, in college. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hawksworth.

In college, I loved the Thursday bar nights.

It’s not that I wanted to drink, or even go out. But once everyone left, I had the dorm to myself. In the quiet of my bedroom, I’d scratched open raw places on my wrists or use my Swiss Army knife to make neat cuts on my fingers and hands.

It had become a weekly tradition. But one February night, during my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to go much further. Like so many other college students, I wanted to end my life. And I had a plan.

* * *

While I was a nervous child, I’d never suffered from a diagnosed mental illness. In fact, I thought I had my anxiety (what my family called “being highly-strung”) pretty much under control. I’d gotten A’s in high school; I had friends. College, I thought, would go well for me. I’d just have to work a little harder.

But when I received my first history essay back from a professor, panic set in. It was marked with a D and a “Please see me.”

Though I was given a chance to rewrite it, that D was the first time I’d felt as if I couldn’t handle school. And it continued. In high school, I’d been able to breeze through homework and big projects. In university, I felt as if big projects were being thrown at me constantly, and I didn’t have the time management skills or the work ethic to complete them properly.

Often, I was too tired to get up for my eight o’clock class. I didn’t eat right, catching all manner of illnesses through the winter of my first year. By the end, I had stopped sleeping, and required short-term anti-depressants to help me sleep enough to pass my exams.

I did, but just by the skin of my teeth.

After a relaxing summer, I thought things would get better. But they got worse. My anxiety overwhelmed me. The smallest things were cause for catastrophe. I started sleeping all day; I refused to shower or brush my teeth. I skipped most of my classes and started skipping meals, too.

By the time February rolled around, I was crashing and burning, badly, and doing my best to keep it from my friends and family. I felt guilty for failing, and plagued by an apathy and depression I just couldn’t shake. Cutting was a way to control the raging emotions and guilt inside me, but it soon became a full-time coping mechanism.

For me, I felt like I was in a dark tunnel and could never get out. I also felt no one really understood, though my friends certainly tried to. It was simply easier to isolate myself – and later, it seemed as if my only option was to end everything and escape my parents’ and friends’ disappointment in me.

If my dorm floor had stayed quiet, I wouldn’t be here today. I was saved that Thursday night by my best friend, knocking on my door, asking me to go out for a smoke with her. I hadn’t realized she was still in the building. I consider it a blessing, and the reason why I’m still alive today.

She certainly knew what was going on with me, even if we all didn’t want to admit that I was fast becoming non-functional. She didn’t let me out of her sight that Thursday. Later, I found out that she and another close friend had been discussing my behavior and what to do about it. They had decided to check on me frequently to ensure that I wasn’t going to end my life.

* * *

I know my story is far from unique.

Suicide is the second most common killer of university students in America (surpassed only by vehicular accidents). It’s estimated that 1.5 students out of every 100 will commit suicide at some point during their college career. Depression is cited as a major factor, as well as anxiety. Suicide rates among college students have increased by 200 percent since the 1950s.

Students, according to the American College Health Association, turn to suicide because of situational anxiety and stress about school, the economy, their finances, or family issues. Often, students coming from high school into college don’t have the coping skills they need to deal with an increased workload or social stress. In other cases, they may have a history of mental illness that exacerbates the suicidal feelings.

Many colleges and universities have mental health facilities, but students may feel uncomfortable about asking for help. What’s more, mental health facilities at colleges can be overburdened, rendering them less able to meet student needs.

But even when these resources are in place, they may not be enough. After that Thursday, I realized I needed help. My school connected me to a counselor who diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder; she offered medication and therapy, which did help me stabilize.

Even with this, I wasn’t able to pull it together enough to pass my second year of university. I dropped out. It was only after a long rest and a lot of therapy, I started attending a community college. In 2006, I graduated with my associate’s degree in journalism, and a first-hand understanding of how mental health issues can ruin your life.

I couldn’t have done it without my friends and family. I was terrified that they would think less of me for failing my courses; in reality, they were extremely supportive. My parents drove up to my university town to take me to the hospital during a bad patch. My friends encouraged me to get help, making sure I got to meals and slept properly, and also went to class, though I knew I wouldn’t pass.

I didn’t become a statistic because I was lucky, but also because I had supportive people around me helping me succeed. Don’t let your dorm room become your prison. There is help – you are not alone.