Just more than a year ago, sophomore Ethan Helfand’s life hung in the balance after his fourth attempt at taking his own life landed him in the emergency room.
As doctors worked feverishly to save Ethan, he was surrounded by friends who had discovered him hours earlier in his dorm room, near death and suffering from an intentional drug overdose.
Now, a year later, those friends refuse to talk about Helfand’s brush with death, a symptom of a nationwide unwillingness to talk about suicide, Helfand said as he addressed members of GWSPAN, GW’s chapter of the Suicide Prevention Action Network. Helfand spoke during the organization’s campus-wide Suicide Awareness Day this week.
“I don’t have a problem saying the word suicide, but that’s the problem; many people won’t say it,” Helfand said during the event.
GWSPAN teamed up with the University Counseling Center in an effort to engage students and faculty in a dialog about suicide at Tuesday night’s event.
The University’s policies have come under fire since former GW student Jordan Nott claimed in an October lawsuit that he was wrongfully dismissed from the University after checking himself into the GW Hospital for having suicidal thoughts. The lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, has yet to be resolved.
Stories about Nott have appeared on CBS and in The Washington Post. A Post editorial from March about Nott’s case started, “For an excellent lesson in how not to respond to serious depression, consider George Washington University’s handling of the case of former student Jordan Nott.” Articles have also appeared in college newspapers across the country, including those at Dartmouth and the University of Georgia.
John Dages, associate director of the University Counseling Center, reassured students at the event that “it is business as usual” at the center, but he also expressed his concern that students might hesitate to utilize the resources available to them because of the Nott case. He stressed that counseling sessions are kept confidential. GW disputes most of the claims made in Nott’s suit.
Dages said that on National Depression Screening Day in October, the center “interfaced” with 125 students, and of those actually tested for depression, six showed extreme suicidal tendencies and received immediate care. He said he views these results as further proof that the UCC maintains an open-door policy.
“There is hope that we are going to reverse the stigma,” said GWSPAN President sophomore Christina Mueller, who after losing her own father to suicide has devoted herself to letting people know that “it is okay to talk about suicide.” She openly admitted at the event that she, like many college students, struggles with depression. Mueller is a Hatchet reporter.
Kyle Grohmann, a doctoral student at Catholic University, explained the deep struggles that the one-in-12 college students who contemplate suicide face.
“They want to live, but feel they need to die,” he said during the panel discussion.
While the number of suicides has stabilized after skyrocketing during the 1980s, one American commits suicide every 17 minutes, Grohmann said. The public, he said, remains largely in the dark about the complexities of severe depression due to the stigmas attached to it. Helfand, the sophomore who tried to kill himself last year, agreed.
“Suicide isn’t a disease. It is a general build up of emotion. You just go for it. You don’t know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it,” Helfand said, adding that he sees the root of the problem being education. “The community needs to be educated, and it is as simple as reading a GWSPAN palm card.”
All of the panelists emphatically agreed that the goal of GWSPAN and the UCC is to provide education and aid to the GW community, where depression and possible suicide cases can be especially hard to detect.
But organizers of Tuesday’s event expressed frustration that the audience for the panel failed to fill Betts Theater in the Marvin Center; about 25 people were in attendance.
“Students don’t think they can die. Unless you have had a friend that has died, you don’t have that personal connection,” said Mueller, the GWSPAN president, in reference to the poor attendance.
Helfand and his fellow GWSPAN members said they hope that April 11 will be made an annual Suicide Awareness Day at GW.
-Michael Barnett contributed to this report.