From personal stories to global statistics, suicide is on the rise. What can we do about that?
There were days — weeks even — when I wanted to die.
I would stand at the edge of the subway train platform and half hope that someone would push me into the path of the subway so that I didn’t have to do it, and somebody else snapped a photo so they would have a cool cover story for The New York Post.
My job was failing. I felt like a failure there. My friendships were waning, I felt like I knew nobody (even though I had plenty). Girlfriend, non-existent or pretty much non-existent. Career direction? Not sure. My culinary skills? Floundering every day (not that I take too much pride in that, but still). Guy Fieri would have been proud but fuck Guy Fieri and his cheeseburger eatin’ ass.
I had so much of my identity wrapped up in things I couldn’t control that if one of them started to look shaky — or, shit, in this case, all of them — the pillars that consisted of my life would start crumbling down under my feet and the fallout would generally be devastating.
So there I was, lethargically moving throughout my day and my week, from home to work, from work to home, from work to bars, from bars to dates, from dates to home.
I remember one time, back in October 2013 when I was working at Singleplatform and things weren’t going well — job-wise — and I was panicked the entire month because I was 100% certain I was going to get fired because I just couldn’t hack it at sales and everyone was like, dude don’t worry but I was freaking the fuck out because I’d just signed a year-long lease in September, and it was October. And it was expensive, too. $1500/month. I was thinking, why couldn’t I just wait a little bit longer!? And really, did we need this apartment?
And then I made it — on the last day of the month, I essentially saved my job by throwing the equivalent of a Sales-Mary. I was elated. I think that night we went to go party at Terminal 5 for Halloween and Holy Ghost was playing and it was a sick show. And all I could think about was holy shit, I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I made it.
So it was strange when, a few months later, I was at the top of my game and dominating a new position at the same company, and I felt way worse than I’d ever had that month in October. My job was going well. I was dating someone.
But I felt stuck. I was like is this it?
This is it. Huh.
So I wanted to move. I told someone I was seeing at the time that I wanted to move to Denver. I think that’s a dumb thing to tell anyone, especially someone you’re seeing. I wasn’t very serious about it at the time, but I felt like anywhere would’ve been better than here. Something drastic.
Within four months, I’d made the decision that I was going to move there, to Denver. I started saving pretty much all of my paychecks so that I had enough to travel for a bit and then head out there. Nothing crazy, just enough.
And then I moved.
Since then, I’ve probably regretted the decision about a half-a-dozen times, asked myself how stupid are you!? and said all sorts of silly, self-defeating things.
But honestly, I feel like a huge pressure valve has been relieved from my life. I’m not constantly working my face off because of peer pressure and expectations. In fact, I feel like I work much harder than I ever did in New York even though I’m working way, way less.
Smart? Not hard.
And it’s been a while since I’ve ever seriously considered anything rash.
Failure is healthy.
In her University of Pennsylvania dorm room, she wrote the first of two notes to outsiders, in an effort to help them understand what she was going through:
“I don’t know who I am anymore. trying. trying. trying… I’m sorry. I love you … sorry again … sorry again … sorry again … How did this happen?”
And in the second, accompanied by gifts to family members, she continued:
“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in. For you mom … the necklaces … For you, Nana & Papa … Gingersnaps (always reminds me of you) … For you Ingrid … The Happiness Project. And Dad … the Godiva chocolate truffles. I love you all … I’m sorry. I love you.”
Madison Holleran was suffering from severe depression — something that, as her father describes, was likely brought on by her self-induced perfectionism and her desire to always achieve more.
To be elite.
But to be fair, at her school, at any Ivy-league school, everyone was.
On the evening of January 17th, Madison climbed to the top of the 9th level of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia and leaped off to her death.
In an interview with the New York Post, her father, Jim, explains: “At the end of high school and going to Penn, she was the happiest girl on the planet. It was easy for her in high school… There was a lot more pressure in the classroom at Penn. She wasn’t normal, happy Madison. Now she had worries and stress.”
The signs were there. It was just too late by the time that anyone reacted.
It’s a common feeling, particularly among Ivy-league school students — former high-achieving students in high-school, their identity so enveloped in the notion of being exceptional and involved in everything and giving back to everyone, they turn into just average students in a sea of over-achievers.
Princeton, alone, has reportedly seen a significant jump in suicides in recent years, though nothing has been formally documented.
Harvard? Its suicide rate is estimated to be around double the national average.
In a recent example, a student of Princeton, W.P. (likely for anonymity on account that the case is still open) was asked to leave campus following a suicide attempt, and prevented from returning to school.
But it didn’t help his condition. In fact, according to the lawsuit, it hurt immensely: “Experienced ongoing stress and embarrassment occasioned by his presence at home, rather than at school, and the questions that this situation generated on an almost daily basis.… His self-esteem had been demolished.”
And that immense pressure — that total loss-of-control, of feeling overworked and under capable — is not uniquely American. Not even close.
In England, the number of students who took their lives rose over 50% between 2007 and 2011.
In China, suicides account for almost 20% among students ages 15-34, according to a study from a few years ago.
In the research for Stress, Coping, and Suicide Ideation in Chinese College Students, Xiaoyun Zhang et al write: “Many Chinese children today are the only child in the home and are treated as ‘little emperors.’ They are overprotected by their parents. They are often ill-prepared to deal with stressful demands on university campuses when they go to college.” (Here’s a link, too.)
In a study published in The Lancet medical journal in 2012, suicide rates among young people in south India are, in some cases, 10 times higher than those of northern states.
There is a common thread among a lot of these different societies: high-societal expectations and far too much self-imposed pressure.
In these situations, failure can be absolutely crippling.
WHAT FAILURE TEACHES
In 2006, Jason Seiken — having just recently been brought onto PBS to lead the digital team — called his team into a conference room and announced that he would be ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and metrics, and focusing instead on something a little less tangible: failure.
“If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,” he told every staffer in that meeting, “you’ll be downgraded.”
He wanted people to take more risks. To get away from the culture of stagnation that was slowly killing PBS as a power-house TV station, and relegating it to the canons of, well, an also-ran in television.
So he asked his team to start failing more, and often and making it a habit. And he rewarded them for doing so.
Quickly, those failures and risks — like a design director replacing a traditional job ad with an infographic about the position — turned into much larger wins with more wide-spread repercussions: before Seiken asked his team to start failing more, they had hardly cracked the YouTube video-sphere.
After? Their auto-tuned clips of Mr. Rogers, including Garden of Your Mind, quickly became some of the most-viewed and shares clips on the massive social network.
He had taught his team how to develop a growth mindset.
THE SECRET TO SUCCESS: GROWTH
“Some can be more intelligent than others in a structured environment—in fact school has a selection bias as it favors those quicker in such an environment, and like anything competitive, at the expense of performance outside it… Their strength is extremely domain-specific and their domain doesn’t exist outside of ludic—extremely organized—constructs. In fact their strength, as with over-specialized athletes, is the result of a deformity. I thought it was the same with people who were selected for trying to get high grades in a small number of subjects rather than follow their curiosity: try taking them slightly away from what they studied and watch their decomposition, loss of confidence, and denial.” — Nassim Taleb, AntiFragile
Riverdale Country School is considered one of the most prestigious private schools in the country — a beautiful campus that looks down across Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, New York, in one of the richest parts of the city.
Which is perplexing, then, that Dominic Randolph, the school’s headmaster, is concerned with anything but keeping the school and its measures of student performance the same.
Instead, what he’s been trying to look at is character and, rather, what elements of character are better indicators of student success than GPA?
As Randolph explains in a conversation with Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed: “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure… And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”
Though good-grades, hard-work and a northward pointing moral compass all ultimately have different impacts on the success of individual students, the true key to success, he argues, is just the opposite: failure.
As Carol Dweck writes in her article, Even Geniuses Work Hard, “Students with a fixed mindset tend not to handle setbacks well. Because they believe that setbacks call their intelligence into question, they become discouraged or defensive when they don’t succeed right away. They may quickly withdraw their effort, blame others, lie about their scores, or consider cheating. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to respond to initial obstacles by remaining involved, trying new strategies, and using all the resources at their disposal for learning.”
So the key for survival, then, is to teach students how to develop a growth mindset.
One high school in Chicago, instead of teaching students that they’ve failed or done poorly on a test, simply writes, Not Yet.
As Dweck argues, “The word ‘yet’ is valuable and should be used frequently in every classroom. Whenever students say they can’t do something or are not good at something, the teacher should add, ‘yet.’ Whenever students say they don’t like a certain subject, the teacher should say, ‘yet.’ This simple habit conveys the idea that ability and motivation are fluid.’
Every day, I feel like a complete and utter failure that I haven’t developed the next Facebook or written a best-selling novel, but I keep trucking because I know my failures and short-comings mean that I’m growing. That I’m developing something, because I’ve trained myself to focus more on growth, and spend less time on needless bullshit. (Which, I’ll admit, is a privilege, too. I’ve been insanely lucky. But luck is relative.)
Are you a failure? Great. That means you’re working hard and trying things outside of your comfort zone.
We need to learn to accept that, and find it less crippling and devastating. That’s how we grow.
Are you a success? Not Yet.
Lastly, an important resource:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1 (800) 273-8255 (website and live chat here). It’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in both English and Spanish. Outside the US? Please click here for a list of international hotlines.
Origionally published at mikekilcoyne.me – reprinted by permission.