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Opinion

Students encouraged to fight depression

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October 3, 2013

“To be sure, I appear at times merry and in good heart; talk, too, before others quite reasonably, and it looks as if I felt, too, God knows how well within my skin. Yet my soul maintains its deathly sleep and the heart bleeds from a thousand wounds,” said Austrian composer Hugo Wolf.

It is October. A year ago I stood before my classes in a semester that seemed full of promise, so full of energy. In the fall I teach my favorite class, Zoology, and am excited to be teaching it again and make it better than ever.

This year, I have that same feeling as I stand before that class. It scares me to think how quickly that promise, that energy, that clear-sighted thinking that I had last year can suddenly be cut short.

Many of you know that I have been personally touched by the tragedy of suicide. On Sept. 28, 2012, my 23-year-old son, Dan, a senior at UW-Eau Claire, took his own life. The outpouring of love and support, by both faculty and students, was overwhelming. My husband Terry, son Zack and I want you to know how much it does help to know you are thinking about us. I am grateful to all of you for helping us through this.

From where I, and everyone else stood, Dan was smart, creative, funny and thoughtful. He loved zombies, video games, music, professional basketball and hockey. He could have been a better student, could have gotten better grades, but he was satisfied acing the classes he liked and getting by in the classes he did not. He was a people person. He liked everybody and everybody liked him. I am not just saying this from the perspective of a mother who adores her children. He was the happy-go lucky, passionate, loyal, lion-hearted boy with a million friends, the eternally lovable son.

There was no warning, beyond the fact that he seemed very tired, and more irritable than usual and he was drinking more. He told me that he was having trouble sleeping, and that is why he was irritable and drinking to help fall asleep. I suggested he go see a doctor, maybe get some blood work or some pills and he did.

The doctor recognized his depression and put Dan on antidepressants. He started seeing a psychologist who told him he had been depressed for years. He told the doctor he had thought about suicide, but would not actually do it.

For five weeks he took the pills and worked with the counselor, but the help came too late, and Dan killed himself. I saw him three days before and he seemed better, happier, calmer, but now we know it was probably because he had made the decision. His psychologist told me with the decision made, he probably felt better, relieved. I only found out after his death about the depression and that was only because he used the meds to overdose.

When Dan died, the official from Eau Claire told me the announcement to the campus would just say that he died unexpectedly. I told him don’t you dare. Don’t you dare cover this up. You tell them what happened, you help students who feel like that, tell them that there are other ways out of what they are feeling. You find help for them. Do not let this happen again.

I do not know why Dan kept his misery from us. Maybe he did not want to burden us with his problems. If you are thinking like that, I am here to tell you that nothing, nothing, he could have told me would have been anywhere near the burden of missing my son that I will carry for the rest of my life. His brother is now an only child. His best friend does not have a best friend anymore. His gang of friends from home is missing part of the collective “we” that they were and it will never be the same. His girlfriend has lost him. The little kids at the cabin who loved him and worshipped the “big boy” have lost their hero.

The counseling center here at UW-River Falls has given some good advice about helping friends find help, helping them see these bad feelings are temporary. Tell them it is not you, it is the depression. Depression is not you, it’s a neurobiological disease, a disease, just like any other and it can be cured. Please be there for each other, for your friends, or for strangers who look like they might need some support. There are “signs,” that some people who are considering suicide often give. Watch for them and make sure your friend goes to get help. Walk them to the counseling center in Hagestad Hall, watch them make an appointment, be there when they need you. Watch for the signs.

However, the Medical Examiner in Eau Claire told me that in the case of a lot of successful suicides, there are rarely any warnings. The calm at the end might have been a sign, but I did not know to look for it.

Looking back, the increase in alcohol should have been a warning. So, too, was the insomnia and it will haunt me forever that I didn’t see it for what it was. What hurts the most is I was never given a chance to help.

So, in the end, to those who are depressed, or those who are contemplating taking their own life, please listen to me. Depression is what it is.  It is not a sign of weakness, it is not a flaw, it is not shameful. Lots of people, who seem so together, whom everybody loves, for whom life seems so effortless, are depressed. If you can not talk to your friends, or your parents, or someone else, then do not. But get help. Get up and get help. There are professionals on this campus, who have chosen helping students as their life’s work and trained for that moment when you walk in the door to say you need to talk. And that is what they will do. The counselors here on campus have chosen to be here, specifically waiting for you.

Do it for yourself, do it for your friends, do it for your mother, or your boyfriend or girlfriend. But mostly, do it for yourself. Do not wait until you are thinking of suicide. There are other ways to make the hurt go away that do not involve death. Tell yourself it’s the depression making you feel that way and those feelings can go away. But you have to do something. Please do it.

And for those of you who do not understand what depression is, who are lucky enough not have that monster in your closet, pay attention to those around you. Put down the cell phone for a minute and really look at and listen to the people around you. Look beyond the defensiveness, the seemingly self-destructive acts, the silence, and the tendency to isolate.  Do not judge them, for you do not know what is in their hearts. You don’t have to be their counselor or their confidant. Just care enough to let them know you notice them, see them as valuable and can help them find help.

Please help me spread the word about depression, suicide awareness, intervention and prevention.

Betsy Gerbec is a senior lecturer in the Department of Biology.