When my suicide plans didn’t go through I quickly got tired of people talking at me. They gave me advice I never asked for, made suggestions I never cared for and asked questions I never had answers for. It was deeply frustrating and somewhat unnerving to be treated like a puzzle for people to solve than a person that was suffering from an illness.
Rather than let me control my own ship, it felt as if a group of well-meaning friends and family members had gathered in the cockpit to wrestle the controls from my obviously incompetent hands. As time went on, I drifted away from people I had maintained personal and even professional relationships with, partially out of fear and partially out of frustration.
Over time, I received treatment from psychologists and other trained medical professionals who are extremely knowledgeable and effective in the duties they studied for years to perform. It was after this I began to reevaluate who I hold dear to me, and I found it was the way friends treated me during my struggles, not what they said, that had the most effect on how I felt.
Seeing someone who I knew was going to be pushy for details, who wouldn’t miss a conversation without asking me how I was feeling emotionally or making a suggestion, would fill me with a sense of dread. They seemed to exist only to remind me I was “messed up.” Those who gave me space to talk on my own, to be open on my own time or express how I felt without pushing for more were the ones I feel helped me find a sense of something like hope.
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It’s for these reasons I was happy to see the university was creating an online class, At-Risk, about interacting with mentally-ill classmates. The university itself is not nearly well funded or large enough to deal with the issue of mental illness on its own, especially considering it is a topic until only relatively recently was considered shameful. The class itself, however, was extremely disappointing in it seemed to encourage the kind of empty-headed kindness that previously smothered me.
Rather than creating an opportunity to understand the complexities of severe mental health issues, the online class turned mental illness into an unintentionally hilarious game. The module gives the user a story of four cardboard-cutout college students who live cardboard-cutout lives, and rather than allow the sweet mercy of quickly reading through a scenario, it spends ten minutes giving information about every unnecessary detail of their poorly-animated existence.
After finding out, among other things, the sorority girl quit drinking and is dating her yoga instructor, the unlucky-in-love nice guy just met a geeky girl who he can talk about Star Wars with, the lesbian who was struggling with her sexuality came out to her supportive parents and is planning a vacation with her girlfriend to Italy and the lonely guy who disappeared started drinking more and has put on weight, the user must make the difficult decision of choosing who is suicidal. After solving the mystery and being given a gold star, the module walks you through how to talk to the fragile victim without hurting his feelings or missing the opportunity to convince him to get help.
Ultimately, the course feels like an interactive parody of a very special episode of Dawson’s Creek rather than a real method to discuss how mental illness is to be handled by friends and peers of those suffering from it. The course and the thinking that created it are flawed because they assume sickness of the mind is like any other, that a certain set of symptoms are indicative of a certain set of issues with matching and proven ways of treating them.
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Mental illness is complex and dastardly. It is rare for a disease to exhibit the same symptoms with any consistency across sample sizes. When people are depressed they can gain weight or lose weight, sleep too much or too little, lash out or withdraw and any combination in between.
That is assuming it is just depression, it is not unusual for mental health issues to exist comorbidly in individuals, leading to an even wider array of symptoms. It is absurd to believe you will know what to do and say when interacting with a sufferer without being them or having a degree.
Mental illness is, at the end of the day, a personal disease. While having the proper support from friends or family goes a long way, getting better is the responsibility of the sick. It is better for students to give a space where their friends are safe to talk but not pressured to, or to reach out without pushing into someone else’s personal life. It can suck, but it is sometimes more important to put your faith in someone’s ability to get better than your ability to help them.
Jeremy Frodl ([email protected]) is a sophomore who is currently undecided.