So many times people say to me, “It must be so much fun to work on a college campus.” And without hesitation, I agree. It truly is a wonderful place. Youth, energy, and enthusiasm are everywhere. Positive energy is not evident on just my campus. I have found this to be true at all the various schools I have worked throughout my career. In previous posts, I have even mentioned the energy that is almost physical when students return in September. The vibrancy is evident around every corner – except when something bad happens.
I have been debating whether to write this post. I think of myself as a positive, “the cup is half full” kind of gal. But lately, I have had something sad on my mind. Perhaps writing it down will help me put some closure on a few things.
WARNING: This post is on the heavy side. Feel free to bail now.
In the past three years, I had been aware of the passing of four students, two of whom I knew – one of whom was in my office the day before he died. Just two weeks ago, our campus lost a young student at the age of 18. I didn’t know her, but her passing brought up all these feelings, particularly regarding the young men I knew.
You see, I sit with students day in and day out. I talk to them about their dreams for the future. When you are between the age of 18 and 21, life is full of promise. That’s not to say that students don’t struggle – believe me they do, but the expectation is that they will make it. The expectation is that life will be long and today’s struggle will only be a blip on their lifeline.
The two men I knew had struggles. The one student told me that he and his older sister, and only family (whom he lived with), had a fight, and he didn’t know where he was going to live over summer break. Naively, I figured it would work itself out. It didn’t, and he was gone the next day – not just for the summer – but gone for good. I was devastated. The second student was a ray of sunshine. His smile would light any room. He struggled a bit with a math course or two, but not so much that it would cause greater concern. His academic record showed some semester breaks. I assumed he was just trying to re-focus for a stronger semester. Later, I learned he had bigger demons. This past December, purely by happenstance, I saw a posting of his passing through friends of friends on Facebook. Again, I was crushed. How do two seemingly healthy 20 year-olds die? I can take an educated guess to answer that question regarding both boys, and I think I would be right. However, that is no longer important.
The other two students I didn’t know, but their passing is nonetheless heartbreaking. When you work with people entering the prime of their life, mortality isn’t something you think about. To hear of an unexpected death of a college student, to me, seems all the more tragic and contradictory. When you look at the national statistics for death, unrelated to physical illness, of people in this age range, it’s pretty high. I often say to some of my friends, “We can relax (a bit) when our kids reach 26/27.” Some of the leading causes of death seem to drop around that age. My non-expert opinion is that the pre-frontal cortex or the “executive suite” of the brain is not fully formed until the mid-20’s. This area of the brain controls problem-solving, prioritizing, risk vs. reward, thinking ahead, long-term planning, and regulation of emotions. Could these things be tied together? I don’t know. I am just me trying to make sense of some very crazy stuff. However, regarding these four students, and others like them, the reason is no longer important.
For those of you still young and able to read this, I will tell you what is important. The answer is YOU!!! YOU ARE WONDERFUL (even if imperfect), and YOU ARE (what is) IMPORTANT! Not for one second, not even for the little blip, should you ever think otherwise. YOU MATTER!!!
To S and J, I hope you know that you are still important. Love, Mrs. D.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1 800-273-8255 www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org