Students and suicides
In the short film “Comfort Room” — winner of the recently concluded Quisumbing-Escandor Film Festival (QEFF) for mental health — a female student walks into a public toilet and finds another girl attempting to kill herself by slashing her wrist. The student comforts the girl and is able to dissuade her from committing the act. But the film ends unexpectedly with the student herself taking her own life.
The story may seem surreal, but it contains a very discomfiting truth: We don’t really know the people who are actually thinking of suicide. They can look and act normal, betraying nary a sign of the tears they’ve shed or the plans they’ve conceived. Their emotional pain is hidden from view, often covered, not by a sad face, but with a smile.
“He was the life of the party,” one of the students I spoke with said of his schoolmate who recently committed suicide. “He was the last person I would think of who would do it.”
“I had no idea she would do it,” said another of her friend in college. “We knew she was introverted but we didn’t think she had deeper issues. We didn’t know she was capable of killing herself.”
Scholars have sought to make sense of suicide by looking at people’s lifeworlds and social networks, their sense of identity and belonging. The risk factors the scholars have identified include life stresses like financial troubles and failed relationships, as well as mental health issues like depression and substance abuse, all of which can contribute to each other.
One underexplored but crucial area to examine is the internet. While in the past people can exit their social lives once they’ve come home, students today are constantly connected to their peers through social media, making comparisons with others inevitable—and cyberbullying particularly hurtful. Reports of suicide letters or even videos circulating on Facebook further highlight the urgency of examining social media, even as it can also provide a safe space for young people to find support, encouragement, and catharsis.
Suicide, moreover, is just the tip of the iceberg. In the QEFF—organized by the Mu Sigma Phi together with the Department of Health and other partners—films and documentaries featured various mental health conditions from posttraumatic stress disorder and depression to schizophrenia and even drug use. All of these can lead to suicide. Many of them are denied and dismissed: “It’s all in the mind,” people might say. Mental health remains stigmatized, and people are too embarrassed to bring it up or talk about it. Even the act of seeking help from counselors and psychiatrists is associated with shame or embarrassment, universities’ efforts to build channels notwithstanding. As a result, students with mental health problems tend to keep their emotional burdens to themselves.
For some, unfortunately, this means dying by their own hand.
As someone who teaches in a university, I find it unthinkable that beneath my students’ smiling faces are the gloomiest of thoughts, the most final of resignations. Surely, there must be a way to convince them to keep fighting. Surely, we cannot give up on them and say it’s their choice. Surely, there must be effective, tailored ways to help them—a multidisciplinary approach to addressing the issue that involves psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, pastoral workers, and students themselves.
But unless we start talking about it, the stigma around suicide will not disappear. We need more activities like the QEFF, filmmakers like Leia Reyna Pasumbal (“Comfort Room”), and testimonials from people who struggle with mental health issues, to raise awareness and break the prejudice blanketing this very important societal concern. That’s the first step — one that hopefully leads us to ponder on the environments — academic, social, financial — that drive young people to sadness and hopelessness.
When students decide to die, the least that we as a society can do is acknowledge their pain—and use all our disciplines to figure out how the world can be made to feel like a less forbidding place to live.
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