‘The only catharsis that comes to mind’: Students open up about suicide
Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic mentions of suicide attempts. Students interviewed were given the option of remaining anonymous in the interest of keeping their experiences private. The anonymous students were given false names, which have been marked with an asterisk on first mention. If you or anyone you know are thinking about suicide or experiencing a health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
“The way that people view suicidal ideation is very interesting to me,” Gargi Samarth, a Brown College senior, said. “You tend to see the person who is dealing with them as less of a person, [like] they’re not as capable of understanding themselves, being self aware or as possessing rationality.”
This translates into heightened fear and stigma of people grappling with suicidal ideation, Samarth said. But it also, they said, encourages people to “write off” their own mental health difficulties when they experience them.
“You think that if it was really bad, you would … be crying in the bathroom, and the French depressing music is playing and it’s like black and white, you know?” Samarth said.
From suicidal thoughts to attempts on their own lives, the Thresher spoke to former and current students about their experiences with suicide on campus.
Samarth struggled with their mental health throughout high school, but when they came to Rice, they said they were doing better than ever. That changed in the spring of their freshman year when campus shut down due to COVID-19 and they returned to their high school bedroom and, in a way, their high school mental health — which didn’t bounce back, even after campus returned to “normal.”
“Everything somehow wasn’t fine … We’re putting the worst part of isolation behind us and trying to rebuild a community,” Samarth said. “I think there was this expectation that I could just ignore, wipe away or erase how bad I had been feeling and just be better now, but …. it was just a breaking point.”
Alaina Bertram (’21) experienced similar degrees of isolation after being sent home during the pandemic in the middle of her junior year. As she grappled with a change in routine and mounting depression back in her childhood home, she said her suicidal ideation reappeared.
“It’s difficult to really talk about suicidal ideation because there’s kind of a line between suicidal ideation and being suicidal. I mostly dealt with the suicidal ideation aspect of it … I was always sort of passively suicidal,” Bertram said. “The fact that I graduated from college was a huge deal to me. Now I’m 24, and I was never supposed to make it to 23. I never had a plan to kill myself. I just always sort of assumed it would happen at some point.”
‘Unique cocktail’ of stressors
Thomas Avalos, a Lovett College senior, spent 10 years in the Marine Corps. Suicide in the military, he said, “has a strong presence in the veteran community, myself included.” He noted that multiple other men he served with died by suicide.
Avalos said he wanted to be a marine his whole life. When he left, he said that it felt like there was “a very big void through the center of my life.” Avalos said that once, when talking to Veteran Affairs, they asked him if he felt a feeling of hopelessness, and he said yes.
“I didn’t feel … like life was worth living,” Avalos said. “We had, not necessarily money problems, but money wasn’t always around, so I remember thinking at one point I’m worth more dead than alive.”
With weapons, particularly firearms, in the house, Avalos said it was difficult not to think of suicide. That began to change when he started “reinvesting” in himself by returning to school to earn his degree to focus on “Thomas Avalos, the person, as opposed to Sergeant Avalos, the marine.” However, thoughts of being “better dead than alive” resurfaced in the face of academic stress coupled with a pressure to excel in his classes.
Bertram echoed similar sentiments of academic pressure, saying she grew up conflating her self-worth with her grades — an especially difficult thing to separate after entering college, when her happiness hinged on the subjective grading scale of introductory classes.
“They call them weed-out classes, and I probably should have been weeded out. But I was stubborn,” Bertram said. “My classes did not reflect that love that I have for [my current job in] neuroscience.”
Lisa* said that the pressure of Rice, especially as a first-generation, low-income student, makes dealing with mental health issues even more difficult. After already struggling with the pressures of being FGLI, they said, “It’s really hard to convince yourself that it’s worth it.”
“I would say there’s probably never really been a point in my life since about middle school where I wasn’t suicidal,” Lisa said. “It’s definitely been worse since I’ve been at Rice, and I think a lot of the scary part of it is you really don’t have anyone to actually check in on you … You’re like, wait a minute, I actually could disappear for a few days. No one would know.”
Katherine*, a Martel College freshman, said she struggled with self-harm and suicidal ideation throughout middle and high school, though she was unable to afford psychiatric care. Financial struggles compounded after matriculating, when Katherine had to take out private loans in order to finance Rice.
“It’s an astounding amount of pressure and there’s also the knowledge that if I die, that student debt … is passed on to my mother as cosigner. What that does, is it effectively removes death as an option,” Katherine. “Being in college and being independent creates a unique cocktail of situations and additional factors that can add pressure. It can really crush you and make you feel like you want to die.”
While dealing with his own “unique cocktail” of stress, Avalos said that once, after he had been drinking, he grabbed a pistol while in an argument with his wife.
“My wife was ... following me around the house,” Avalos said. “I said, ‘If you don’t leave me alone, I’m gonna blow my brains out,’ and whenever I said that she was obviously very shaken up by it. Who wants to hear that from the person they married?”
Avalos said his wife called the police, and he was detained and ended up receiving psychiatric care for four days.
“It was definitely something that put life in perspective in terms of what I’m doing at Rice compared to life-life,” Avalos said. “Saying that to my wife scared her … and it took me getting to that point to realize that, even if I didn’t mean it, even if I knew that I would never kill myself, at no point should I say that … and at no point should I start taking steps towards doing that.”
For Iris*, an engineering student, her mental health struggles came to a head during her junior and senior years of high school, as she would sit through mass at her Catholic high school thinking of ways to end her own life. When she came to Rice, she said that thoughts of suicide or self-harm recur during especially heavy weeks of coursework.
“I was like, ‘I cannot do this anymore without support,’ so I went to the [Rice] Counseling Center,” Iris said. “[My therapist] is good at identifying a little bit of what’s going on … understanding [what might be wrong with me] … Going to the RCC has helped … me identify what’s going on.”
Andrea Plascencia, a Will Rice College sophomore, said that when she finally reached out to Wellbeing and Counseling, she was frustrated by a five-week waiting period on top of struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“That alone was a trial,” Plascencia said. “Because I was like, ‘Why is it so hard to even just get a basic consultation to see a therapist face-to-face?’”
Lisa said that they would like to see more support for students to utilize off-campus resources.
“I’ve heard horror stories from people who have opened up with counselors or wellbeing people, and ended up … essentially being forced to take a semester or year off,” Lisa said. “For some people, that’s not really an option … so it’d be really nice to know that you could talk to someone without your whole life changing.”
In a statement to the Thresher, the Wellbeing and Counseling office and Associate Dean Alison Vogt said that they encourage students to learn more about hospitalizations and medical withdrawal policies by reading through their website or in a consultation appointment. They said that “not all suicidal thoughts need to lead to a hospitalization, which appears to be a misconception among students,” and the Counseling Center can help students to develop a plan to ensure their safety.
“We are aware that there are instances in which students are fearful of sharing their experiences with therapists, however coming to speak to a therapist about suicidal ideation is a part of preventative self care,” the office said. “Students are assessed and an individual plan is made for them based on their needs.”
While considering Rice’s priorities, Hugo, a Duncan College sophomore, said that Rice provides an adequate amount of mental health support for their students — up until a certain point. (Editor’s Note: Hugo opted to not include his full name).
“I think Rice is great at supporting students who are going through academic stress, who are feeling a little blue,” Hugo said. “We have all these study breaks and we have [Rice Health Advisors] and everyone … But then as soon as you’re actually going through any kind of significant mental health problems, Rice does not want to deal with you. They have no resources for you.”
Hugo cites a deeper need to recognize the full spectrum of mental health, from moderate to severe. While study breaks and RHA events may serve their purpose, Hugo said that mental health runs deeper than that.
“Mental health … isn’t going to be solved with a study break and some face masks,” Hugo said. “That kind of performative, ‘Oh, we care about mental health,’ we can just stop that. It just isolates the people who are actually struggling even more.”
Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman said that Rice is focused on increasing both the number and specialty range of staff who provide mental health services. Over the last few years, she said Rice has steadily increased the number of staff in the Wellbeing and Counseling center and will add a new wellbeing advisor, a “learning differences case manager” and a trauma therapist for the upcoming academic year.
During her Orientation Week, Anita* should have been at one of the mandated mental health talks. Instead, she attempted suicide by overdosing in her room. Anita, a current Will Rice College sophomore, had previously been hospitalized at a psychiatric ward during high school — an experience that followed her even after leaving, even through her matriculation at Rice.
“A month after I got [off the ward], one of my friends passed away. It just sent me down a path that was even worse than the depression path. They put me on antidepressants, and I was manic and hypersexual and all over the place reckless, impulsive,” Anita said. “That led to me being in that state of mind coming into Rice O-Week.”
After being rushed to Houston Methodist until she stabilized, Anita was placed on medical leave and returned home for a gap semester. She said that the readmittance process was “10 times harder” than her initial application process.
“I had to have proof of continued successful work experience, proof of continued successful therapy, continued successful school, like community college or extra classes,” Anita said. “I had to write a letter, get letters of support, have a four-year academic plan [and] meet with a bunch of academic advisors at Rice to figure it all out.”
According to Gorman, mandatory leaves of absence are incredibly rare.
“These decisions are made with a treatment team that includes the student and their caregivers,” Gorman wrote in a statement to the Thresher. “We look holistically at all of the systems around the student to determine what kind of care is needed.”
Gorman said that medical leaves of absence are intended to provide students an opportunity to focus on their health and wellbeing, away from academic stresses. Before readmitting a student, she said that an interdisciplinary team meets to evaluate the student’s progress in their treatment and care and their treatment team’s recommendations. Gorman said they also look at the student’s proposed academic plan, as well as their plan to continue treatment at Rice.
“I think it’s important to know that our RCC and Wellbeing team has implemented various ways over the years to be as flexible as possible with students who have experienced a mental health crisis, [and] many [students] do continue their enrollment at Rice with various accommodations in place,” Gorman wrote.
For Hana*, a McMurtry College junior, her medical leave was entirely voluntary.
“I started seeing a psychiatrist [and] they officially diagnosed me with depression and anxiety,” Hana said. “I realized I just need a semester off to process what it means to have depression.”
Hana, who echoed other students’ experiences about the grueling readmission process, faced an unexpected setback when her appeal for readmission was denied.
“Because I [didn’t] have any work experience or coursework during my time off, I wasn’t proven to be able to handle the stress of Rice,” Hana said. “If I knew Rice was going to react this way in terms of my readmission … I’m not sure if I would have come to Rice.”
After getting off the phone with Wellbeing’s crisis line the eve of an exam, Justin* found himself on the way to Houston Methodist in a Rice University Police Department vehicle. After discussing his suicidal ideation on the crisis line, Justin accepted the operator’s offer for RUPD to escort him to the hospital and meet with a social worker. Despite voluntarily going, Justin said that, upon arrival at the hospital’s emergency room, the RUPD officers issued an emergency detention order that had Justin involuntarily detained.
“In 30 minutes, I was in … It wasn’t a bedroom, it was an empty room with a temporary, I wouldn’t even call it a bed, just some sheets,” Justin said. “The light was bright and everything. It was one of the most scary nights I’ve ever had.”
RUPD Chief Clemente Rodriguez wrote in an email to the Thresher that officers make an initial evaluation based on factors including statements, actions and history of the student. Officers may refer a student to campus mental health services or, if they believe the student may harm themselves or others, bring them to the hospital for a psychological evaluation.
“Every decision is made with the information known at the time and in the interest of safety for the person they’re helping,” Rodriguez said.
Nation’s ‘happiest’ student body
Having one of the happiest student bodies in the country has become a pillar of Rice’s admissions brochures and outreach programs, but many students say it is difficult — nearly impossible, even — to live up to.
“Saying we’re the happiest students is like how on your birthday, you’re supposed to be really happy, and then bad things happen, and you feel extra bad,” Anita said. “We’re supposed to be one of the world’s happiest campuses, and sometimes we’re not, and then you feel extra shame.”
Others say that this label of happiness creates a campus culture that’s not quite as inclusive as it claims to be. For all its criticisms, however, students have praised their support systems at Rice — ones that are rooted entirely in the student body.
Plascencia said that when people think of people considering suicide, they think of “bitter and selfish individuals,” but that isn’t true — they are some of the most caring, “beautiful” people she has ever met.
“I honestly think it’s quite the opposite. I don’t think it’s that they don’t feel for other people. I think it’s that they feel for other people and for the world so much, and at some point they really were some of the happiest people that existed,” Plascencia said. “But they know what it’s like to feel so much, that it’s just painful. The only catharsis that comes to mind is taking your own life.”
For Samarth, even though they say they still struggle with their mental health and, at times, with suicidal ideation, things are better.
“I’m comfortable talking about this sort of thing. I’m also doing a lot better now,” Samarth said. “And I think it’s really important for people to hear that … My life is not sunshine and rainbows, but I have found things that work for me.”
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