When a Nightline peer listener picks up the phone, he or she isn’t thinking about trying to save anyone’s life. We don’t think about certain populations being more likely to commit suicide than others, or about men choosing more lethal means than women. We are each just a voice in the dark, another human on the end of the line who is, undoubtedly, your advocate. That is what, in an instant, improves your mental health, happiness, and well-being—feeling that you are not alone.
In the wake of suicide in any situation, we realize how close we all are to death, and how the will to survive can actually affect whether you do or not. Here at Columbia University, and in colleges and universities around the country, students are usually notified in an email of the event, providing both condolences and resources for students and community members who are grieving. Though suicide in a community can increase the likelihood of more suicides, something some of us may perhaps already seen this semester, what is more worrisome is the pervasive heaviness that settles over a community in the weeks afterwards. Everyone is a little more burdened than usual, even if they were not close to the deceased. Do we have the right to grieve when we barely knew a person? Why are we still affected a month, two months, a year after someone’s death? What would you do faced with these situations?
It is hard to think of a situation in which talking to a peer about something troubling would not be helpful. Sometimes Nightline is the first to hear about a student’s current mood, how she is doing, what’s going on in her life. Sometimes a caller has told his story 12 times but needs a fresh take. Maybe this form of anonymous listening, this hotline that has operated for years on this campus, is not the solution to this problem, but the starting point. How can we involve students more when something as devastating and incomprehensible as suicide happens in our community? Is it a college- or Columbia-specific environment that causes this level of mental and emotional distress? Of course not. Could we all stand to look out for each other a little more? Without a doubt.
It is easier to define “non-judgmental” in terms of what it is not: offering advice, assigning blame, making assumptions. It’s also the theory as much as the practice: knowing someone is there to listen is often as comforting as the cathartic and therapeutic act of being listened to. It can start when asking a friend what they mean when they say, “I’m fine” in an unconvincing way, or reaching out to someone you notice is looking downcast. You are one person, but by making that connection with another, you are doing more than the minimum already. Even if that’s as far as it goes, a single conversation can have an impact on the wider community if it is one of many conversations taking place—the norm rather than the anomaly.
These personal connections, the close circles that Marina Keegan—the young woman from Yale who died in a car crash a few months ago—wrote about last spring in the Yale Daily News, are what keep us motivated (“The Opposite of Loneliness,” May 27). Valuing them rather than taking them for granted is essential to an aware, caring campus. It doesn’t seem plausible if you conceptualize it as a movement, a spirit of wellness we have to promote in some grand, abstract way. But the smaller efforts of living in a community—checking on people, taking care of oneself as well as others, knowing when to ask for help—are things we can start to do consciously every day. Becoming attuned to each other as individuals operating within larger support systems will be vital to increasing our awareness of each other’s well-being, physically and emotionally, and it will increase your capacity to provide a listening ear whenever someone needs it.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in dance and psychology. She is the co-director of Nightline Peer Listening.
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