It has been a while since I have put some ideas down on my blog but today seemed like a good day to come back. When I woke up this morning I was not thinking about suicide. I honestly never really think about it because I don’t think I have any suicidal tendencies. But when I got to my office I fired up my favorite radio program; The John in the Morning Show on KEXP out of Seattle. Each morning if I am in the office going about my day I will stream this station. Their music mix is amazing and they are the kind of socially responsible art I want to be a part of. John is great at knowing he is speaking to a global audience and while the show is apologetically Seattle he knows we hear him in Orlando too.
He began the show by playing Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush and thus began a morning show dedicated to World Suicide Prevention Day, which is today, September 10th, 2019. It was such a good reminder as I began the seemingly normal day. Today was a reminder that so many people are suffering and suicide is a growing problem for many Americans. According to recent CDC reports and reported by Time Magazine, suicide rates are at their highest since the World War II. It is one of the leading causes of death among teens, and is a contributor to our national life expectancy dipping for the first time in decades. Currently 14 out of every 100,000 Americans will end their own lives.
As a student affairs professionals we will inevitably come into close contact with suicide in one way or another. In my own lifetime I have had friends, students, and colleagues take their own lives. The reality is in many cases they did not present a mental illness or any of the Hollywood signs leading up to their death. They simply went somewhere and took their life. But it does not have to be that way. Despite not presenting their mental health status, the truth is for most survivors of suicide they will tell you that simply asking someone if they are okay they were saved because someone reached out.
For student affairs professionals like ourselves we have lots of resources like QPR Training or the Jed Foundation to help us, help our students. In many cases we have professional mental health counselors on campus to take our students to. But this is not really a blog about that. This is a blog about you and I. While suicide among higher education faculty and staff is low when compared with other professions the fact is we likely are not great at knowing just what the impact is. Higher education is notoriously decentralized and there are many ways we can miss data trends that affect our peers.
And consider the kind of pressure we are under right now. Trends in college affordability, student access and success, and dozens of other issues can make our jobs stressful and seemingly unending. So it would not be surprising if our rates of suicide among higher education professionals is not higher. Now I am not a trained mental health professional so I thought I would put it into a personal frame. What are the things that make me anxious? How can I approach these issues and make myself more healthy despite my lack of any suicidal thoughts. After all, I think if we are aware of the things that make us feel a certain way we can decide if we need help or if we need to help ourselves. So here are the things that I want to share that give me doubt and anxiety:
- I often have an impostor complex and the thought of being found out and thus losing credibility is something that I struggle with a lot.
- I often get too tied up in what people think or feel about me. I can often be speaking to a group and I have waves of anxiety from what I perceive is judgment.
- Because my work often requires me to make many high level reports and synthesize lots of data I often worry that I will not understand a concept or misreport information that will lead to a bad decision by our leadership. I can panic that I made a mistake.
- I can take on the feelings and anxiety of others and try to work our problems for them. This is not the best use of mine or their time and most of the time they don’t even know I have taken on their trauma. This empathy trap is real.
- I struggle with allowing myself to completely unplug and rest even when it appropriate to do so. I feel like I am always at work.
- I allow others to affect the way I feel about myself. I can take criticism too much to heart. This include trolls on social media.
- Finally I allow the overall malaise of the world to impact my own direction. I will find myself not allowing myself to feel joy if I know others are hurting.
So how do I deal with this? What am I going to proactively do to ensure my mental health is prominent?
- First off, I am going to be honest with the world. As higher education professionals we ask our students and others to express themselves and to show their pain. But we are expected to be strong and not show vulnerability. This is not healthy or productive. It is time I stood up and am willing to say when I am not okay.
- I need to eliminate the negative thoughts by eliminating the negative content. I recently did an un-follow day focused on shedding the social media, news sources, and information sites that impact my mood and feelings. Clickbait is real and it can be intoxicating but if you can ignore some of it then it can help your mental health a lot.
- I need to take my time off and unplug. This includes email and cell phone. I did this over the summer, 3 weeks of vacation and it was the best thing for my head space I have done in a long time. I have earned the time off and I have a right to take these days when its appropriate to do so.
- Instead of taking on others fears and anxiety I can ask how I can help. I may not be able to do anything by it costs nothing to ask. This will allow me to help them lighten the load without packing it on.
I think one of the best ways we can prevent suicide is to also take stock in ourselves. If we understand what we can do to help ourselves we can learn how to help others. It is important to remember; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Suicide is preventable if we care enough for ourselves and others. We live in a society where people find power in hurting others be it by social media or in life but we are all better when we treat life with kindness.