Donning a Mask: Suicide at Harvard

Part I of a three-part series on mental health at Harvard. Part II was published on Dec. 12, and Part III on Dec. 14.

“I felt that it was better to take my life than to accept failure,” Christine says plainly.

Christine, now a senior, is direct and open as she reflects on her first of two suicide attempts during her sophomore year. Shaking her head, she says that she thought college would allow her to escape the depression and anxiety that plagued her in high school.

“I came to Harvard thinking Harvard would fix it,” she reflects wryly. “I thought, ‘I can build my own life from scratch and build something wonderful.’”

But during her second year of college, news from home triggered overwhelming emotions.

Over a phone call in early December, Christine learned that one of her close family members was found homeless on the streets. That news flooded her mind with memories and emotions from her own experience at home.

“The only way I felt I could respond and make a statement was to commit suicide,” she says. “The ultimate statement of rebellion and expression of pain was to hurt myself.”

Christine became calculating and rational as she prepared for death. She withdrew all of the money from her bank account and placed it in an envelope for her roommate.

“I figured I should probably utilize my resources effectively,” she says. “At least if I die someone could use my money.”

However, when Christine made it back to her dorm room, she became emotionally overwhelmed. Channeling her anger and pain toward her possessions, she pitched objects across the room. A suitemate who happened to be in at the time heard the shattering of glass and called 9-1-1.

“I was numb; it was surreal,” Christine says. “I felt like an 80-year-old woman. I felt I had experienced way too many things to fit into my 20-year-old body.”

Though her memories from the attempt are hazy, she laughs now when she recalls the ambulance driver asking her if she would like the siren on. Christine—whose name has been changed, like the other students in this series, all of whom have attempted suicide—attributes her mental illness to her abusive home. However, like nearly every student interviewed for this series, she also faults Harvard’s health system and high-pressure culture with contributing to mental illness.

SAD NEWS

The email, titled “Sad News,” has been sent out three times so far this year. Each time it opens with a similar line: “It is with very great sorrow that I write to inform you of the death of a member of the Harvard College community.”

Though the names, biographies, and location of death differ in each of the emails, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds’ message remains the same.

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