Clayton M. McCleskey: End misconceptions about suicide prevention

I will never forget the phone call from my parents telling me that my childhood friend Grant had committed suicide. After struggling with bipolar disorder, Grant lost the battle and leapt from a 10-story building just blocks away from my home in Dallas. That was one year ago today.

Before Grant’s death, I had never thought much about suicide, but I soon realized that Grant was not alone. In fact, over the past 10 years, the number of suicides among 18- to 25-year-olds has almost tripled. Suicide has nearly become an epidemic, yet it is not something we are comfortable discussing.

This issue is especially pertinent now, as GW has settled a lawsuit brought by Jordan Nott, a GW student who alleged that he was suspended from GW in 2004 because he discussed depression and general thoughts of suicide with University counselors. The Nott case overshadowed much of the University Counseling Center’s efforts in the wake of a string of suicides during the 2003-2004 school year. With this case out of the way, it is time for this campus to have a dialogue about suicide and understand that the counseling center is here to help students, not get them in trouble.

Dr. John Dages, senior associate director of the UCC, encouraged students to continue to come to the UCC, stressing that is “a safe place,” and that students who seek help “will not be kicked out.” The media circus surrounding the Nott case skewed that message, and many students are worried that a visit to the counseling center may result in disciplinary action.

Under Dages’ leadership, GW recently received a federal grant for the establishment of a 24/7 depression and suicide hotline, which students can reach by calling 202-994-5300. The hotline had already received 60 after-hours calls as of September. That means 60 of our classmates reached out, perhaps at a critical moment, and heard a life-saving voice on the other end of the line.

The UCC has also helped to facilitate communication on depression and suicide, offering depression diagnosis on National Depression Screening Day, which occurred Oct. 5.

Unfortunately, the Nott case led to a tragic miscommunication about the UCC. We can no longer afford to harbor misconceptions about treatment for mental illness. The UCC’s purpose is in no way to remove students from school or get them in trouble. The center seeks to act in the best interest of students, yet some students seem to think that the counseling center is out to get them.

While the University stands ready to help students, we undergraduates need to feel comfortable coming forward. It is crucial that organizations such as the GW Suicide Prevention Action Network (GW-SPAN) play an active role on campus, promoting discussion and acting as ambassadors for the UCC through panels and other events aimed at increasing awareness. Likewise, the administration should give continued funding to the UCC’s suicide prevention and education programs, so that students have a place to turn in moments of crisis.

As I discussed Grant’s death and suicide with people around campus, a surprising number of people mentioned a loss of a friend or relative who killed him/herself. With suicide rates on the rise, we must recognize that it’s fine to talk about suicide and the pain associated with losing a loved one to mental illness.

Grant, along with several members of the University over the past several years, may have lost the struggle with mental illness, but we must take the lessons learned from their deaths to improve the situation on campus. Grant’s death reminded me of just how valuable true friendship is, and I encourage everyone to reach out to your friends, make yourselves available to those who need your help.

Communication is the key, and here at GW, we have the tools for dialogue. With the Nott case finally over, I hope that we as a campus will support and better understand the counseling center’s role in encouraging mentally ill students to stay in the fight.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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