Warning: The following content contains sensitive material about mental health, depression and suicide.
Two days before last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I found out one of my best friends from middle school died by suicide. He was like me in every sense. We did middle school debate together and agreed that we peaked then, grew up in a predominantly Asian community filled with academic competition and parental stressors, attended an Ivy League institution (he went to Columbia) and started out as pre-meds (he later switched to finance while somehow I still cling to that track). After I found out about his death, I cried for two hours and then channeled all of my energy into repressing the news to execute the best MHAW I could muster.
I spend nearly all my time spearheading mental health initiatives on campus. I co-chaired the Mental Health Task Force that provided the list of recommendations to Vice President of Student Life Ryan Lombardi a year ago, co-chaired MHAW, now co-chair the Mental Health Standing Committee, supported the search for the new director of Cornell Health and Counseling and Psychological Services, co-chair MHAW this year and bring the conversation to every aspect of Cornell that I can.
What you might not know is the burnout associated with this work.
Two days before a final, I sobbed in the bathrooms of Kennedy for four hours and almost checked myself into the hospital for suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t get a recurring thought out of my head that the only way to create effective and quick change was to write out everything I thought needed to be changed and disappear. People would have to pay attention if a prominent mental health advocate was gone, right? I told myself after going to not one but two walk-in appointments in addition to my regularly scheduled therapy (and after my finals) that I would take some time off from mental health work for my own self-care. However, while I was prioritizing my own mental well-being, I still felt guilty because any time I didn’t spend on trying to improve mental health could mean another life lost. This mentality still haunts me once in a while.
A day before National Suicide Prevention Day this year, Cornell’s former CAPS director, Greg Eells, died by suicide. It felt like a scary parallel to my life: We were both incredibly dedicated to mental health and yet facing our own battles. Yet with this guilt and loss in my mind, I continued to work on the Mental Health Standing Committee, reaching out to administrators and connect the community through this loss because I was so worried that other mental health workers would feel the burden of their jobs on themselves the same way I continue to.
As I plan MHAW this year, I have lost two close family members and the anniversary of my friend’s death weighs on my mind. Yet, I continue to organize this week and connect the campus and the administration. People still continuously come to me to ask for advice on how to navigate Cornell Health, professors and parents regarding their own mental health issues, and while I am always incredibly humbled and honored that people trust me with feelings and are reaching out to others for support, it often feels that I am the only one they depend on for that support. I often find myself alone in supporting myself, as I am a point person for others yet many don’t recognize that perhaps those like me who work in mental health reform may need that support as well.
While I love the work that I do and continue to do, I feel every Facebook post, news update and conversation I witness related to mental health further weigh down my soul. I am hyper-aware of the people around me, worrying all the time that if I don’t catch even the most subtle signs of mental distress that I will lose someone I love. Even seemingly positive things can turn sour for me — a recent Sun article detailing mental health policy changes on campus had no mention of any of the work that the Mental Health Task Force did, and I immediately felt that I was not doing enough to support people on campus. While no one I know does mental health work for the acknowledgments or accolades, the occasional nod of recognition for the work that we do would go a long way in supporting people who work in mental health.
My dear friend passed away one year ago. Oct. 11, 2018, will be forever burned into my memory.
The image of him dancing without any regard for anything other than his own happiness flashes before my eyes every time I hear certain songs. I still remember us pinky-promising each other on a bus in NYC that we would try and find mental health support once school started up again. He taught me so much about resilience, about being a positive force, about being okay with being lost. In his death, he taught me to try and take care of myself and to treasure all those around me. This MHAW is for him. I just need to learn how to make this mental health awareness week for me, too.
Mental Health Awareness Week this year runs from October 19 to 26.
Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.
Joanna Hua is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cup of Jo runs every other Friday this semester.