The smile on my face didn’t wear off for at least half an hour after the last time I saw Chris Dayer, the week before spring break.
Chris, his girlfriend Amanda and I had met for a late lunch after our classes had ended for the day. I hadn’t seen either in a few weeks, and despite having known him for more than a year, his extraordinary enthusiasm for finding time to spend with friends still took me by surprise.
We weren’t talking about anything uncommonly funny — the typical group chat drama, weird professors we had this semester, our plans for the summer — but grinning was just something you wanted to do after talking to Chris. From my perspective, he seemed to have every reason to be sunny: he was about to graduate at the end of the semester with a degree in chemistry, already accepted to pharmacy school at Temple University, family, friends and roommates who looked up to him and a girlfriend who loved him.
That’s part of the reason why it was so shocking that the next time I heard Chris’s name, it was because he was gone forever. After reading a text message from a friend that felt like a punch to the stomach, feelings of total emptiness gradually gave way to grief and then a burning desire for answers. Where had this come from?
In the days since that awful Friday, I wondered whether I had simply given my friend too little attention to see signs of the end approaching. But as the reality of the situation set in, I came to realize an unsatisfying — but undeniable — truth: mental health problems aren’t always visible on the surface, and it can be incredibly difficult to share your struggles with issues that are socially stigmatized.
Far too often, individuals who face mental health issues can’t see their problems as anything other than a burden to the people around them. A person’s beaming personality can become a source of support for the people who know them, like Chris’ did. And people who are generous with their friendships may prefer to act as though everything is normal instead of sharing their struggles with friends and family if they see them as a potential burden for others.
It’s almost impossible to avoid the near-universal stigma of mental health in Western society today. A 2008 study from the University of Calgary found slightly more than one in five respondents held the absurd belief that people suffering from depression were “dangerous.” The fact that such a belief is widespread in our world of otherwise modern medical attitudes should be seen as nothing less than an attack on people with mental illnesses.
Because of archaic social attitudes like these, young people with mental illnesses often voluntarily do not seek help, professional or otherwise. Even among those who receive an official depression diagnosis, data from the National Institute of Mental Health show just half ever receive treatment at all, and a mere 20 percent get medical attention “consistent with current practice guidelines.”
The self-stigma this and other research reflects can be the source of a vicious cycle for people who experience the symptoms of depression. Research from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2007 found a connection between internalized marginalizing of mental health problems and “diminished self-esteem and self-efficacy.” And feelings like these obviously don’t help the situations of those already suffering from major depression.
Chris was a person who, to me, often seemed not to notice the ways he constantly added to the lives of each and every person around him. Whether it was the thrift store finds he dutifully brought back from other cities to give to friends he thought they’d fit, the bouts of laughter that always made you feel in on the joke or the outpouring of support after his death, everything about Chris was an inerasable sign of the care with which he treated those close to him. Everyone who knew him would be beyond lucky to ever know someone else half as kind.
If we, as Chris’ friends, family and classmates, want to avoid a loss like this again, something needs to change about how we deal with depression as a community. It’s difficult to accept the passing of someone as supportive and kind as him. It’s even more difficult for me to write about it and more difficult still to talk about the issues surrounding mental illness going forward in the aftermath of his death.
Mental health campaigns from Pitt have long focused on “talking about it,” but that obviously hasn’t happened yet. Yet it’s precisely the kind of change that needs to happen. We can’t solve a problem we refuse to acknowledge — and mental illness is no exception.
Everyone in the Pitt community is valuable, and everyone deserves to be heard — especially if they’re in need of help and dealing with depression or other mental health problems. If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs resources, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Pitt Student Counseling Center at (412) 648-7930 or Allegheny County’s Resolve Crisis Hotline at 1 (888) 7-YOU-CAN.
Henry is the Opinions Editor of The Pitt News. Write to Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.