I recently came across the following feature article on the ESPN website, thanks to Twitter: Split Image. It's about the suicide of Penn first-year student and varsity track athlete Madison Holleran in January 2014. She jumped off a parking garage in Philadelphia near Rittenhouse Square. The article describes, as well as it can, Holleran's growing perceived struggle in college (apparently she was doing very well in class and on the track team but felt she was not succeeding) and the contrast between her inner turmoil and the happy life she presented to the world through her social media accounts, especially Instagram.
I hope many college students, especially freshmen, will read it, in the hope it will remind them that people's lives may not match the image they give to the people around them. Holleran and some of her friends seemed to struggle with the thought that upperclassmen's lives on Instagram looked "perfect" and theirs weren't, although they also recognized the happy-looking pictures they put up didn't match their perception of their own lives (so they knew their own Instagram accounts didn't reflect their true lives but didn't imagine it could also be the case for the upperclassmen).
Because Holleran seems to have spiraled down very fast, gave few warning signs and jumped off the parking garage even after running into a track coach from another university (Lehigh, of all places) who had tried to recruit her in high school and told her she could still transfer, it is difficult after reading the article to come up with clear action steps that could have helped her and may still help other students, besides remembering that people tend to only show their best side on social media. But whether Holleran's case is representative or not (according to the ESPN article, NCAA student-athletes are far less at risk of suicide than the average student population, so one could argue it is not) freshman suicide has been an issue at MIT this academic year, and it is worth thinking a bit about what people could do to prevent another first-year student's from taking his or her own life.
I think the main issue is that struggle has to be legitimized. We live in a culture of instant success where people are supposed to become rich and famous overnight, and when the actually rich and famous role models discuss their career path, they are so far removed from the world of a college student that few undergraduates will feel the millionaire's story resonates with them. (There's also a stigma regarding suicide and suicide attempt, so that one would have to be extremely secure and well-established in one's career to share with strangers any past thought of suicide, so we won't even talk about that.) But there's value in older students or successful young professionals sharing their struggles with their peers - and hopefully if they do, it will help the youngsters not spiraling into thoughts of suicide in the first place.
The fact is, in real life, if you don't struggle to reach your goal, it wasn't probably a worthy goal to begin with. (No one ever says that their goal is to cross the street.) If people seem to be gliding through life without much effort, they are either good liars or they are not fulfilling their potential. But we also need to teach students who have so far always been highly successful in whatever goal they put their mind to that perhaps they will fail, and there is value in learning how to dusting themselves off. (We also need to teach them how to deal with their parents' disappointment that their kid, it turns out, cannot always succeed in whatever goal he or she puts his/her mind to and their insistence that, maybe with a different tutor or better vitamins, the situation can still be made right again.)
In the end the idea that you can achieve any goal you put your mind to is dangerous because it reflects a view of someone's path entirely based on never-thwarted willpower: you decide on a goal and then you achieve it, you decide on another goal and then you achieve that one too. But real lives are not linear and "controlled" like that. Often there is an element of serendipity. You need to be able to adjust to what happens around you - whether it is a mentor changing jobs, your company being acquired, the business unit changing directions, your project being scrapped after years of late nights. Hopefully those events you had no control over will help you achieve something even better, but you might have to work hard for the happy ending.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) discusses his theory of the archetypal hero's journey in The Hero With A Thousand Faces. You can find helpful diagrams of the hero's journey here, but really you just have to think about Luke Skywalker in Star Wars to figure out what the hero's journey is about. (The link above does have a cartoonish depiction of the Star Wars plot too to illustrate the journey too.) The key points I want to emphasize are (1) the repeated trials (2) the struggle (first to accept that the old life has been outgrown, and then to walk the path) and finally and most importantly here (3) the role of mentors and helpers. An issue with first-year college students is that because they have recently entered a new environment, they haven't yet developed strong relationships with people they could trust and who would serve as mentors or help them find the way. But there are plenty of people out there who would be willing to give advice (and would be qualified to give it).
Here are some ideas for first-year students who feel they are struggling or are disappointed their college experience is not what they had expected. (This is not medical advice. This is long before any thought of suicide. If you are considering suicide, please call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.) The key, I think, is that students who feel they struggle in school when they've never struggled before face a challenge to their self-identity if they viewed themselves as A students to whom success came easily. So students who struggle in class might want to focus on reconnecting with what they like to do and reframing their perspective as "the most successful students always struggle at one point or another because they challenge themselves and they take adaptive action based on the feedback their environment is giving them." Students who feel they're not making the meaningful friendships they had hoped for in college might want to attend a social event on campus or join a club. It takes a long time and shared experiences to forge meaningful friendships so don't put too much pressure on yourself.
Mini-Things (Very short term)
- Do three little things that give you joy: what did you like to do in high school? do one of those things. They don't need to be very long.
- If you can't remember things that you liked to do in high school, watch a TED or TEDx talk. If you can't think of a topic that interests you, try a talk by Angela Duckworth or Sam Goldstein.
- Take a walk through campus or go to the gym for half an hour.
- Read one article in a magazine or a few pages of a book that interests you at the local Barnes & Noble or campus bookstore. (Yes, it's better if you actually buy the magazine or the book, but first we'll focus on getting you to feel better.)
- Watch your favorite (uplifting, energizing) music video on YouTube or listen to your favorite (uplifting, energizing) song on your iPod.
- Remove social media apps from your phone or take a one-day break from social media. If one day seems too long, then do a few hours - something that stretches you a little without seeming unreachable.
- Eat a healthy meal. It can make a huge difference in people's moods.
- Find a course you like to take next semester, whether in your major or not.
- Brainstorm ideas with your Resident Assistant (upperclassperson who lives in your dorm).
- Contact local alumni in a profession you are interested in and contact them to set up informational interviews to discuss their paths. It will help you think about something else than your present situation and focus on an appealing goal. The alumni might have useful perspectives on struggling in college and making friends too!
- Contact your academic adviser for a one-on-one meeting. He/she might have a useful perspective too. If your adviser is too busy or doesn't give you meaningful advice, ask who he/she could recommend to talk to for further perspective on the topic (don't explain why you want a second opinion!). Or ask students on your floor if they think their academic adviser gives good advice and email that person if the adviser is in the same broad field as you (engineering if you are an engineering student, etc).
- Perhaps contact the office of transfer students in your school and ask to chat with a few recent transfer students so that you can better understand the reason for their unhappiness at their previous university, what they see in yours, and whether transferring elsewhere would be a good option for you too.
- Remember: it's ok not to like college. I didn't like college at all. (I attended an engineering school in France where people were heavily left-brained, i.e., nerds. I'm good at math but heavily right-brained: art, books, museums, paintings, theater. The mismatch was epic.) But college allowed me to get into MIT and move to the United States. So things worked out in the end.
If you are considering suicide, please call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.