Don’t be afraid to ask
You may not have noticed, but for an entire week earlier this semester, Uncle Joe’s peer counseling service lined the walkway between Olin Library and Mudd Field with 500 pencils, symbolizing the 1,000 college students nationwide who take their own lives every year.
You may not have heard, but last week, a college student at Georgia Institute of Technology was shot and killed by campus police after expressing suicidal ideation and waving around a pocket knife.
You may not have known either of those things, but I can pretty much guarantee you know someone you went to high school with, grew up with or met at Washington University who has completed suicide.
My question then to you is: What keeps you silent? What keeps you from reaching out to your friends to check in? What are you scared of?
For the entire week that the pencils were in the ground, I would walk the sidewalk once a day and pick up any that had fallen over. I saw many of you doing the same thing. But for every pencil I or someone else picked up, there was someone else who walked by without doing a thing, someone else who stepped around or over them, someone else who kicked them back down.
At Wash. U., we treat our peers’ mental health like we treated those pencils. We ignore it, assuming someone else will deal with it or actively making it worse by telling them to “suck it up” or that “it’s all in their head” or that our own problems are much worse. We cannot continue down this path.
By failing to reach out to our friends and classmates, we are not doing them a favor by not reminding them of their problems; we are only forcing them to suffer in silence and solitude.
Asking someone if they are having or have had suicidal thoughts does not increase the likelihood of that person completing suicide. Let me repeat that just to make sure everyone understands: Asking someone if they are having or have had suicidal thoughts does not increase the likelihood of that person completing suicide.
Never be afraid to check in with anyone if you feel that they are having a tough time. As long as you are committed to listening to someone and being there for them, you will not make their situation worse.
Many of the pencils along that walkway had snapped in half from being kicked, stepped on and abused in general. Just because those pencils were broken doesn’t mean they were useless.
People are the same way. Life tends to kick us, step on us, abuse us…but none of that means that we aren’t resilient, that we cannot bounce back and keep living. It usually just means we need someone to listen to what we’ve been through, tape us back together and let us keep going.
People and pencils do not irreparably break. We should not be so quick to throw away what we believe to be flawed and to write off what exists with imperfections.
Washington University: I challenge you to pick one friend and check in with them every night. To ask them how their day was, what was good about it and what was hard. I challenge you to be preemptive and not to wait until you perceive that something may be wrong—to not assume someone else is going to check in.
I challenge all of you to stop ignoring the pencils and start picking them up.