Sometimes wisdom comes from the mouths of babes.
This was the case on Wednesday afternoon when friends of Ao “Olivia” Kong at the University of Pennsylvania organized a “You are Not Alone” event to remember their friend. Kong had died by suicide two days earlier, stepping into an oncoming train at the Market-Frankford line’s 40th Street station during the Monday morning rush.
The event, organized by friends of Kong, was a tribute to the junior finance major, but it was much more than that. It, as well as the change.org petition signed by more than 3,500 people, was a respectful yet virulent response to the way Penn’s administration announced Kong’s death. The e-mail sent to Wharton School students on Monday afternoon described Kong’s death as an accident. For more than 24 hours, even after Kong’s death was ruled a suicide, there was no follow-up amending Wharton’s statement. An earlier email sent from the President’s Office to full student body reported the incident and listed a number of resources for students, but did not provide Kong’s name.
Kong was the 10th Penn student since February 2013 to end her life by suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, approximately one million people attempt suicide each year. In 2010, the most recent year for which data exist, 38,364 Americans took their own lives. That’s one suicide every 13.7 minutes. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death among all Americans and the second leading cause of death among college students.
Each year more than 1,000 students commit suicide on college campuses.
Risk factors for suicide are known. Nearly 90% of people who die by suicide have a potentially treatable mental illness at the time of their death – a disorder often unrecognized and untreated. More often than not, it is untreated depression. Other risk factors include a previous suicide attempt, family history of attempted or completed suicide, history of trauma or abuse, and chronic pain or a serious medical condition. Stressors such as losing someone close, financial loss, trouble with the law, and bullying can make people susceptible to suicide.
Penn, like many other universities, offers counseling and psychological services to its students. Penn screens students for depression at health fairs. Penn has an active mental health task force made up of administrators and professionals that released an eight-page report in February 2015 emphasizing a culture change on campus. Penn administrators are committed to not letting resources stand in the way of protecting the mental health of students.
But, by calling Kong’s death an accident, Penn missed an important learning opportunity. Suicide is only one aspect of a larger mental health problem on our college campuses. The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment found that 60.5% of college students “felt very sad” and 30.3% “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” at least once in the prior 12 months. The survey also found that, even though most campuses provide low-cost or free mental health services to their students, many students who need help do not ask for it. Most students who are depressed are not in treatment and most students who’ve died by suicide had not been clients of the counseling center.
I understand why Penn omitted mention of the cause of Kong’s death. Perhaps they wanted to spare her family more heartache. Maybe they wanted to let Kong keep her “Penn Face.”
It’s difficult for most people to talk about suicide. And so, time and time again, suicide deaths are hidden or swept under the rug as an accident. Doing this disregards the pain of the person who died. It also leaves survivors of suicide – in this case Kong’s fellow students – feeling alone, like they too must shamefully hide their own depression.
When I was a senior in college, my mother killed herself. I was devastated. But, in keeping with 1975’s culture, I hid the details of her death. Then, for 40 years, I continued to tell friends my mother died in a car accident on an icy winter night. I did this because I didn’t want people to think poorly of my mother or of me.
The Penn students who gathered for a moment of silence on Wednesday demonstrate the wisdom of a new generation – people who are not ashamed to talk about mental illness and suicide. At their rally, letters from anonymous students who had written stories of their own depression and anxiety were read. This was a powerful way for students to connect, support one another, and acknowledge the prevalence of mental illness. It is actions like this that will break the silence and lift the stigma of mental illness. What the Penn administrators have to do now is listen to their very wise students and follow their lead.
Silence, secrecy, and hiding are wrong responses to student suicide. Mourning the loss of a valued community member and talking about mental illnesses and suicide prevention is what should be done.