During my sophomore year at Penn, I tried to kill myself by swallowing a bottle of Wellbutrin. I spent 4 days in the hospital.
Penn’s response? – Sending some administrator to see me in the hospital (HUP). The first and only thing that she said was, “Are we going to make this an annual pattern?” because I had been hospitalized the year before. I said “No” and she gave me her business card.
I went back to classes immediately upon my release from the hospital. There was never any follow-up (other than my decision to go to CAPS) and I ended up completing the semester at Penn.
Penn did not create my problems – I struggled with anxiety and depression from childhood for a variety of reasons; however, rather than providing a fresh start and nurturing environment for growth– Penn exacerbated my symptoms. In light of recent events, this aspect of Penn’s culture must be discussed.
It is my opinion that Penn would do better to address its culture and not its mental health services.
I spent a lot of time at CAPS both before and after my suicide attempt. I think that CAPS provides a wonderful service, and was very close with my therapist and support groups. Expanding CAPS – while positive for the school and students - is not the solution. To me, the problem with Penn is not that there are not enough therapists at CAPS; it is that the environment here is so stressful that everyone is driven to the point where they need to be at CAPS.
At Penn, I always felt that I had to be “okay” – anything else was unacceptable. Most of my friends never knew that I attempted suicide. It was not something I could share because of the taboo surrounding mental health issues. Everyone was much happier hearing about visiting friends in New York, or having a bad allergic reaction.
Anxiety and depression can be very uncomfortable topics and are often avoided. For example, when I finally shared what happened with a very close friend, she called me an attention whore and ignored me. I told another friend, and it was never brought up or discussed again because it was so uncomfortable. Sharing and seeking help only lost me friends.
After suicides, everyone laments, “Why didn’t they talk?” Often, we did. People just didn’t want to listen, because in the moment it was easier for everyone if you put on a smile and pretended to be okay.
The night of my suicide attempt I called a friend and told him that I was contemplating suicide. He told me he was sorry and to call a suicide hotline. We have not talked about my suicide attempt since that night.
Suicide is a tough issue. Even I have trouble talking about it a lot of the time. It’s also not something that friends can solve for you, and the help of professionals is often needed. However, I find it disturbing that the few friends I told (and the friends they then gossiped to about it) have never asked me about it or brought it up or asked how I am doing, in all the years since it happened.
I feel very conflicted reading about the recent suicides that occurred at our school. A part of me feels sad to imagine how hopeless some students may have felt. A part of me feels triggered and confused because I think about how close that was to being me. A part of me also gets angry because everyone starts talking about reaching out for help and talking to people and how everyone cares and wants to help; however, when I reached out before and after my suicide attempt, people did not want to help or talk about it. Part of me — and I hope I am wrong — thinks these are all empty promises. Images of what people wish they were.
I think that a part of the reason for these responses is the culture and values of Penn. Penn’s metric of success tends to involve wealth, prestige, and fulfilling careers. These are admirable, important goals. However, personal and emotional growth, loving friendships, and overcoming mental illnesses are important too. In a school and culture where these goals are not nurtured or encouraged, there can be painful side effects.
For example, when I missed a midterm exam because I was in the hospital after my suicide attempt, my professor did not allow me to make it up.
Another time, I asked a friend if they would go for a walk with me to Wawa for milkshakes and mac-n-cheese because I felt overwhelmed and needed a short break. They responded that they were busy studying. I texted another friend and got the same response, and another, and another. In my experience, studying seems to come before friendships a lot of the time.
I didn’t find anything better when I briefly dated a guy on campus. He was pre-med and intent on getting into med school (also an important, admirable goal). However, this meant dating him came with restrictions. I could not talk if we studied together, I was blamed for taking up his time if he did not do well on a test, and if I had a problem near the time of his midterms, I had to wait until they were over for him to talk (sometimes a week or more).
I tried to kill myself at Penn because I felt so utterly alone. I was taking classes like I was supposed to, and doing extracurriculars like I was supposed to, and exercising like I was supposed to, and having friends like I was supposed to, and going to parties like I was supposed to, but I was still so lonely. Hanging out was often “study dates” and felt so hollow. Friends did not have time for walks or talking or asking the hard questions (except perhaps during the start of the semester).
It is my opinion that because Penn is so stressful and demanding, it is easy to become fixated on yourself and what you are trying to accomplish. I feel that this attitude and culture leads to isolation.
I am tired of the silence. I want Penn to report the number of attempted suicides at Penn per year. I know I am not the only one and suspect the numbers are staggering. Penn pushes this number under the rug and chooses not to address the issues that are driving their students to these extremes. The culture at Penn needs to be addressed and changed.
While I was in the hospital, a nurse watched over me 24-7 to prevent me from trying to kill myself again. This same nurse was present when some of my friends came to visit to wish me a speedy recovery from my allergic reaction. After they left, she looked at me and said, “Look at all those friends you have!” When I was released from the hospital, I walked myself back to my room and got back to work.
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