I was on the other side of the world, scrolling through my Facebook feed, when I found out. A girl I had known since elementary school had committed suicide by walking in front of a train.
I was stunned, but maybe I shouldn’t have been.
We had never been close, but we were (briefly) in the same Girl Scout troop, played against each other in soccer for years, and I generally knew of her. I forget who moved into the neighborhood first, but she also lived down the street from me starting in about eighth grade. We were in separate social circles at school, and I don’t recall ever seeing her at her house, though I did see her sister from time to time.
The thing I remember most about her was how funny she was and the sound of her laugh.
I also remember hearing from a close friend during our freshman year of high school that she self-harmed. I was surprised, but never thought of doing anything with that information. I didn’t doubt its truth, so why didn’t I say anything?
In middle school, I had two encounters with the counselor. I was sent there once after my parents’ divorce and felt so overwhelmed I began crying the moment she started asking me questions. I wasn’t crying because of anything related to my home life; it was because I felt so exposed in front of a stranger.
The second time I talked to the counselor, it was on behalf of someone I had just met. A girl at my bus stop confided in me that she was starving herself to lose weight. I encouraged her to eat but I knew my words were ineffective. I talked to a friend and we decided to go to the counselor’s office together. All I knew about the girl was what she looked like and her first name. I had to flip through the pages of the yearbook to figure out who she was.
It felt like a betrayal of trust to tell the guidance counselor, but I knew she wanted help. She wouldn’t have told me in the twenty minutes I’d known her if she didn’t want someone to step in. Of course, she would never confide in me again after I spilled the beans, but that didn’t matter. I knew the adults around her were aware and trying to help, which was a lot more than I could do.
Why, then, did I not go forward about someone I knew (slightly) better cutting? At the time, there were so many reasons why I didn’t that it never even crossed my mind to do otherwise.
The obvious reasons were that it wasn’t my place and that I didn’t know with 100% certainty that my information was correct. However, those were minor reasons.
During my freshman year, most of my friends cut (or engaged in some other form of self-harm), and I knew of other people I never talked to that cut as well. It wasn’t exactly normal, but it was normal enough. Off the top of my head, I can still remember seven people who did and it’s been a little over ten years since my freshman year of high school. It was like there was an invisible network of misery that drew us all together. If you were in the club, it was an open secret who the other members were, and we wouldn’t out one of our own.
More than that, though, intervention seemed both undesirable and futile. I vividly remember a conversation where a friend told me that her problems were not the type that could be solved with therapy, though apparently I was not so far gone that it couldn’t work for me. This really bothered me as I interpreted this as a way of her saying that her problems were infinitely more complex than mine, that I was generic and my problems were so simple that anyone aside from me could figure out what I needed to do to feel better.
In short, therapy seemed like a solution for “basic” people, for people who had your typical growing pains or who had issues dealing with common problems, like the ones in every YA book about eating disorders or self-harming. Certainly I had never come across a character in a YA book that had the kind of issues I or any of my friends had.
Additionally, it seemed obvious to everyone I talked to that therapy would never work for anyone that didn’t choose to go themselves. Self-harming was a method of coping and if that’s what that person wanted to do to get by, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. And, for the most part, it seemed that the people who were cutting were stable, not suicidal.
The glaring exception to that was my closest friend at the time. She lived with her aunt and uncle and they were well aware of her problems, but it didn’t seem to be doing any good. Every day I came to school wondering if she would be there or if she had finally done it. This went on for months. After spring break, she went to a live-in treatment center.
A few of my friends, their parents, me, my mother, and my friend’s aunt all met at a coffee shop to discuss it. I was told not to contact my friend for a while as it could hold her back, and as she transferred to another school after her treatment, I had no idea when or if it would be acceptable to talk to her. I only remember her calling once toward the end of the summer. I was scared that I would somehow set her back in her treatment and, regardless, I didn’t know how to talk to her about everything that had happened, so that was the end of it.
In the past year, I have read about two potential shootings that were prevented at my former high school. I also learned that my high school was one of the first to allow qualified teachers to carry guns to respond in case of an active shooter.
In high school, I never feared a school shooting. I was afraid that my friends would kill themselves, not other people.
While I don’t know what the solution to these issues is, it is clear that mental health is and has been a serious problem for middle and high school students. In sharing my reasons for not seeking help or helping others that needed it, I hope that we can find ways to make reaching out to counselors or adults in general a more viable and attractive option to young people.