I had a student come into my office with a letter for me this week.
This is a student I have counseled through many tough days. She has been a student of mine in five classes. She’s been in [redacted] class every semester, and she is also in one of my [redacted] classes. I know a lot about the student because she’s a scholarship student, even though she wasn’t in one of my small recitations. She has confided in me and I know we come from a similar background.
She’s been abused mentally and physically. She’s been taking care of herself for a long time and putting herself through college. She has known some hardships that I will never know and that many of our students will never have to face and been able to maintain nearly straight A’s. She is bright and hard-working but the world around her has not been kind and she has not been set up for success. Her story is tragic, and I’ll spare the most saddening parts. She has a medical condition which prohibits her from being too physical, but her greatest passion is [redacted]. Nearly everything she’s ever done that most people would consider a success has been a result of her trying to prove to family that they were wrong about her.
Knowing this, I hoped to show her that she didn’t need to prove me right or wrong. I wanted her to know that no matter what happened, someone cared and that no matter what happened (success or failure) the only person she has to prove anything to is herself. I helped the student get ready for transfer for college, apply to other institutions, choose careers that might give her a chance for success, and when she was at her lowest I helped her to our campus CARE team and walked her into our counselor’s door. When she needed help I looked online with her and found some licensed psychologists in El Dorado she could afford. There has never been a time when I felt like I wasn’t doing everything I could for the student.
… And when she brought me this letter I could see in her eyes that there was something wrong again.
Sometimes you just know… the only reason that she would be showing up at my door before a holiday weekend with a thank you letter is because she was going to attempt suicide. I talked to her for a few minutes and eventually she confided her ultimate goal. She said that she didn’t see a future for herself and that everyone in her family and her life would be better off without her. This is not a girl who is un-liked. She has friends at school… albeit not very many, but she has one very close dear friend. However, she has almost no adults who truly care.
She is not one of those people that pretends to just be happy all the time; the world (to her) has not been a happy place… so she doesn’t relate well too many of the other students in her classes. She doesn’t come from a life of privilege; she’s had to work for everything.
I was able to talk her down for a while. I tried to relay my stories of depression and suicide attempts. I tried to discuss with her the things that pull me back to reality. I shared how my family has dealt with depression and anxiety and of course she left telling me that she wasn’t going to attempt. I told her I was obligated to report, and that it was out of concern and care. I went straight to campus security and reported what had happened. I added her to the CARE team and I asked somebody check up on her. Not even five minutes later an officer was at her door saying “I heard you’re feeling a little bit down today are you going to still be with us tomorrow?”
Now I KNOW there are almost no words the officer could have said that would have been truly comforting, but I can’t help but think there has to be a better way to talk to a student in this crisis. Not only do I think that line of discussion is inappropriate, I think the timeline for check-in is completely inadequate. It had only been five to ten minutes since the report. Is that really an appropriate amount of time to check in? Shouldn’t we be checking in more and later? I think somebody should have been checking in on her all evening but because she lived off campus I was told there was little that we could do. She lived in the Villas and I was informed that it was out of our jurisdiction. When is a student life out of our jurisdiction? (Related rant: at some point are we as an institution going to take responsibility for the Villas? )
Without divulging too much, the evening did not go well. The student left her apartment, went to a required school gathering for a commitment she had made, and then that same evening this student attempted suicide. She drove to the middle of nowhere and drank a lot, she took a lot of pills, and she started the car forward with the hopes that she would crash her vehicle where only she would be hurt. Her body gave out before she was able to crash and she passed out. Some officers found her unconscious and she was rushed to the ER. Her stomach was pumped and the next morning she called me. I am not a therapist. We are talking about faculty interaction with students and the importance of it, but the intensity of this experience… the intensity of my dean and I going to the hospital with her and talking to her family and getting them to understand what had happened… how we ended up coaching her through going to a rehab facility and communicating with her teachers about when she would be back… the intensity and reality of this whole experience has left me heartbroken and shaken.
We have got to train our teachers, myself included, in how to handle these situations. Interacting with students in need is certainly as important as how to properly convey a big idea in a classroom or engage a student. There must be support available for us to be educated in what to say to a student and what to do in these situations. I’ve spent more time than I can recall asking, “what could I have done differently?” Multiple times I sent her to the CARE team and continued to coach her within the appropriate lines of student/faculty interaction. What could we have done differently to keep her from trying to end her life? How can we coach the faculty and students in the aftermath of these tragedies? What do I say to her best friend when she’s in my office the next week in tears, sobbing about how she didn’t see this coming?
I’m at a loss. I’ve had so many talks with faculty members since this happened, and I’m no more or less clear about how it should have been handled. I followed the protocol, I am involved in the student’s education… I show care and model as best as I can. I coached as best as I could, but it still isn’t enough.
She is still with us, she has moved on and did transfer to another college this fall. I find myself ashamed that I’ve distanced myself a little from her. I want her to be successful, but I’m not sure I have it in me to see the world knock her down again. I’m still shaking.