Caitlin was never quiet in grade school. She talked loudly in class. When a teacher’s back was turned she drew caricatures of him for classroom distribution. A tomboy at heart, Caitlin taught her small-town schoolmates how to laugh. Ironically, she was crying from within.
In September 1999, Caitlin’s first day as a junior in high school, she committed suicide. She had been planning it for a while but friends only questioned the seriousness of her threats. After all, everything was a joke with Caitlin; or at least that’s what they thought.
Fast forward to the start of this semester. An all too familiar story rocked the collegiate world. The Columbia Spectator reported, “A day before NYU began fall classes, Joanne Michelle Leavy, a 23-year-old Tisch School of the Arts graduate student, jumped from that school’s main building.” This was the sixth suicide for NYU in the last year.
Leavy, like Caitlin, left a world of broken hearts behind. Alisha Outridge, Leavy’s best friend, reported to The New York Daily News that Leavy spoke of the overwhelming pressure of film school, work, finances and her diabetes. Leavy also told Outridge, “She wished she could be a kid again and just be herself, that she [wished she] didn’t have all these problems.” Caitlin’s friends and Outridge are now trapped in the world of “what if,” but they will never have an answer to their questions.
Caitlin cried for help but no one wanted to believe that the soccer star and class clown had serious problems inside. After her death, the community cursed themselves for not being able to intervene. For the people closest to Caitlin it was the hardest. They knew of her threats, yet failed to react.
For Leavy, her professor carries the guilt of what could have been done. Leavy wrote her former professor an e-mail titled, “Think Less” just before she died. The professor reported in The New York Daily News, “I think five minutes one way or the other could have made all the difference in the world.”
All too often friends of suicide victims wonder “what if” a friend really goes through with these threats? The time to wonder is when the people are still alive. Help should come before, not after.
According to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA), suicide is often caused by depression and other mental illness. In a report titled “Safe Guarding Students Against Suicide,” the NMHA states, “more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from all medical illnesses combined.” The thing that statistics can’t number is the amount of people who have to deal with the aftermath.
John DiMino, Director of Tuttleman Counseling Services, has a solution for Temple students dealing with depressed friends. “We try to fill the environment with as many helpers as possible,” he said. His idea is to foster a community of security rather than inconsistency for those struggling with depression and subsequently suicidal thoughts.
DiMino said the most effective therapy combines medication and psychotherapy. Pills can alter the state of mental illness, but talking helps to alter the state of personal relationships. The proper use of pills and a good listener can make a difference in a suicidal friend’s life. No one can ever comprehend the mental baggage Caitlin carried, but a few spare minutes could have encouraged her to seek professional help.
At the very least, a friend can help and encourage someone not to commit suicide. Caitlin had been planning her death for years, and by ignoring her issues with the hope that they would dissipate over time, friends did nothing for her illness either. As anyone knows, depression does not disappear but grows wild if not tamed. As a friend of someone who is depressed and suicidal you don’t need someone with a Ph.D. to listen; there is no science in compassion.
When a friend takes their own life it seems that loved ones are quick to point the blame. The first finger gets pointed at doctors and medicine. As time passes people begin to look inward and inevitably guilt and responsibility takes hold. Blame will always be intangible and there is no pill or medical remedy for that. Trying to help a suicidal friend can increase the chances of their life quality and one’s own conscience.
The solution for any mental illness and especially suicide is seldom black and white. Caitlin and Leavy have proven just how gray the area of “what if” can be. Caitlin is never coming back and her classmates will forever wonder what more could have been done; but addressing her issues might have made a difference if she was willing to listen.
In light of these incidents students should take DiMino’s advice and concentrate on creating a community for peers. Perhaps the result will be fewer questions like “what could have I done?” and more like “what can I do now?”
Nicole D’Andrea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .