Student Depression

Last weekend, a former student contacted me to share his experience of a recent loss. A close friend of his, after having struggled for years with crippling depression, took her own life. This young man, in the wake of her suicide, has been left not only with the pain that attends her loss but, also, with a burning question: what, if anything, can be done to help others who experience such crippling darkness that death seems the only way to stop the pain? 

Drawing on his own harrowing experiences of depression, Jesuit William Lynch described the feeling of hopelessness as containing, in varying degrees, elements of the following: 
  • Sense of the impossible - no matter what one must do, it seems too daunting. Whether it be to get out of bed, or go to school or work, or look through the day toward the evening, it seems too much. 
  • Sense of too-muchness - the whole of life seems too much, too big, too burdensome. The smallest task is overwhelming, things others might take for granted become herculean endeavors.
  • Sense of futility - in the heart's depths, where once there burned a flame that provided a steely resolve, there is nothing. One experiences a lack of feeling, a total numbness.
For the person for whom hope has been extinguished, it would seem that all of one's interior resources have been vanquished. Where once a still, small voice encouraged, "Come on! You can do it!" there is no silence, a deafening absence of sound, which is experienced as a constant reminder "There is no use."

"Hopeless" by dobytek
I would observe that, if these observations ring true, they would be experienced particularly acutely by young people today. We frequently read about the pressure students are put under: be involved, be studious, be extraordinary. These days, there's a competition to get into kindergarten! High school students are under constant pressure to get good grades and high test scores. College students feel pressure to declare majors early and have a life-plan by the end of their first year. 
Our expectation is that young people "Dream Big" and "Aim High." A person for whom hope has been extinguished can hardly "make a wish" on a birthday candle or on a distant star. 

Adding to Lynch's metaphor: if on a journey through the desert we come upon a collapsed traveler, his immediate desire will not be to construct a water park or aqueduct. Instead, if we ask what he wants, he will simply say: water. It is not the big dream or career blueprint that is the sign of life. The sign of life, and the sign of hope's endurance, is the ability to make even the smallest wish.  

I mention this because I think all of us need to be increasingly mindful of the pressures and expectations we place upon ourselves and others. If we see a fellow traveler stooped under her burden, our assumption should not be that she's lazy or unwilling to walk further. If our students, or young friends, seem somewhat ground down by daily life, we should not ignore it or attribute it to "a phase." Hopelessness is not a phase. It is an affliction, a soul-tearing ordeal. We cannot dispel the darkness for another, but we can help to fan the dimming flame of the heart. 

As I think back on my own former students, I wonder what would have happened had I been more attentive to certain things. The student who packs a bag slowly, with labored breath, and sort of shuffles out the door. The student who stares off into the distance, his skin pallid, somehow there but not there. The forced-smile that tries to distract from the ocean of tears behind the eyes; the assurance that "everything's great" when you can tell, somehow, that it's not. If I could do it over, I'd not ask them big questions, questions I know now to be overwhelming. Perhaps I'd ask, instead, "what do you want to have for lunch?" or "if you could make a wish today, what would it be for?" If it sparked conversation: great. If the student couldn't articulate even the simplest wish, then it might be a good sign that intervention was called for. 

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