Suicide in Paradise

Entering Columbia University is a dream come true and the first step in what I hope will be a fulfilling career. My time at Columbia undoubtedly represents one of the most eye-opening and stimulating periods of my life. Most of my peers were as ecstatic as I was when going through the gates of our Morningside Heights home for the first time. And yet, as fall finals loom just days away, some of our fellow students have suffered from tragic depression, going as far as attempting to take their own lives. When I learned that a close friend of mine had attempted to kill herself and had been admitted into the Psychiatric Unit of St. Luke’s Hospital, my world collapsed. A large part of me still fails, even refuses, to come to terms with what happened. How can the education that we have always dreamed of destroy some of our most promising classmates? How do we, as a community, allow this to happen?

I have always cherished my education as a unique opportunity and a chance to grow as a person. For some of our peers, however, this hard-fought dream has turned into a nightmare. Because of loneliness, intense academic pressure, tuition-related stress or homesickness, the educational experience of some of our fellow students has become a horrendous ordeal.

When tears overcome the joys of education, when loneliness takes over the lives of fellow students, the world-acclaimed Ivy League model ceases to function. Our university, the most important place for intellectual freedom, comes to induce unspeakable human suffering. The students are not the only ones to be hurt; the intellectual conversation this university seeks to engineer suffers as well.

Student depression is not a phenomenon unique to Columbia, though our university ranks among the most stressful in the country. According to a recent study, 6% of all undergraduate students in the US have “seriously considered attempting suicide”. Let that sink in for a moment—in whichever classroom or library you might find yourself in, it is likely that someone in that room has attempted to take his or her own life.

As one of the wealthiest educational institutions in the world, Columbia obviously has the financial means to implement a more ambitious student welfare policy. President Lee C. Bollinger, who currently tops the list of America’s most well paid university presidents, could allocate a small fraction of his $4.6 million yearly compensation to create new psychological support services for students. The university could hire more people to assist distressed students, and such tragedies could be more efficiently prevented.

But would that be enough? Would the tragedies from which so many of our peers suffer be avoided should the university hire additional psychological counselors? In most suicide cases, the affected individuals refuse to reach out to their family and friends. Therefore, why would they open up to complete strangers?  If campus mental health resources are upgraded, would we be able to prevent such tragedies from occurring?

It is essential for every one of us to identify and prevent the causes of such tragedies among our peers. The burden lies upon every member of the Columbia University community to protect other students, even from themselves. As Columbia students, but also as compassionate and responsible humans, we have a duty to care for one another, whether they be friends or acquaintances, classmates or strangers.

Suicide is not unavoidable. Student depression can indeed be solved. However, we cannot expect increased psychological services to single handedly solve this complex issue. Student depression is not an individual problem, but a collective tragedy and a failure for us all. Blaming our university without questioning our own attitudes about depression won’t lead us anywhere.

I cherish my challenging studies at Columbia University, and am grateful for everything I have learned here. Yet if we cannot, collectively, prevent such tragedies from occurring, then how useful is the education we receive? What purpose does it serve to reach the highest standards of global academic excellence if we cannot prevent lives from collapsing around us? We must begin a process of reflection about our responsibilities to each other as members of the Columbia community.

Diego Filiu is a junior at Columbia University majoring in Political Science. Read other articles by Diego.