“Katy” had a 4.0 GPA in high school and was involved in her school’s water polo team in Sacramento County. She never did drugs and had no visible signs of trauma. She was known as a driven and dedicated student.
But the 21-year-old hit her lowest of lows when she believed the only viable solution to all her problems was committing suicide.
“I always put on a front and I was always happy. Nothing ever slipped because I just was good at putting on a face and putting it all down where I didn’t need to show it,” Katy said. “I figured it was just easier to take myself out of the equation than to realize how great of a person I am as an individual and that I’m worth it.”
Katy is a pseudonym for a 21-year-old SF State kinesiology major and athlete who agreed to speak under a pseudonym about her mental struggle with suicide.
She tried to take her own life during her junior year of high school by binging on alcohol, which caused her heart to stop operating. Emergency room attendants had to electrically jumpstart her cardiovascular system three times before her heartbeat finally resumed.
This attempt followed two earlier ones. She had tried to hang herself from a ceiling fan and drown herself in a bathtub.
Katy is one of thousands of attempted suicide cases, complex and multifaceted mental health issues that not only affect people of all ages, but college students in particular.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the second-leading cause of death for 18- to 24-year-olds, with new outside studies suggesting that it has now become the leading cause of death.
The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention says that more than 4,000 people aged 15 to 24 die by suicide each year in the United States, and the organization notes that more than 90 percent of young people who die by suicide had at least one psychiatric illness at the time of death that was easily treatable.
According to Yolanda Gamboa, SF State crisis counselor, a variety of symptoms exist and are signs that should be taken into consideration with people who are at risk, but especially in college because it’s a time when students begin to live independently.
“The ages of 18 to 24 is when mental health issues begin to develop, and we here at Psychological Services try to catch it when it begins before it leads students to acting out on suicidal thoughts,” she said.
Risk factors include traumatic life events, feelings of isolation or depression, alcohol and substance abuse, trouble concentrating, not finding pleasure in previously enjoyed activities or any combination of the aforementioned characteristics, according to Gamboa.
In Katy’s case, trauma came in the form of sexual molestation by her 12-year-old babysitter when she was very young.
“I told my friends in junior year (of high school) that when I was 8, a girl forced me into a closet and started to touch me,” Katy said. “I acted out. Started to doubt my sexuality, started to doubt myself, started to doubt why I was here.”
Katy felt that no one would listen to her because of the environment she lived in, and instead created a facade to mask her internalized pain.
“My town is a very small town, and nothing bad happens to anyone there. I felt like I was the only one who had ever gone through this and I felt very disgusted, very gross,” Katy said.
Katy isn’t alone, although the San Francisco Coroner’s Office noted in a report that increased community efforts have contributed to a decrease in attempted suicides.
According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of San Francisco’s annual report for 2010, ten people between ages of 17 to 29 committed suicide.
The San Francisco Suicide Prevention is the oldest community-based crisis line service in the United States. Founded in 1962, the 24-hour phone bank answers approximately 200 calls per day of people who feel distressed and might be contemplating suicide.
Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, noticed that many college-aged students don’t call in as frequently as other demographics, and decided to offer 24-hour email and texting help as well.
Meyer notes a tendency for suicide occurrences to fly beneath the radar of society’s consciousness.
“People that consider suicide have disappeared from view and people don’t see them anymore. Our operators engage in a process of listening. Just listening to help the victim to grow and heal,” she said.
Meyer and Gamboa both said that there’s a taboo associated with people who have mental health issues and have attempted suicide.
“Everybody is saying that this shouldn’t happen because they look cute, gorgeous,” Meyer said. “This taboo keeps us from talking to each other, and it keeps us from learning how stop it. We don’t do much research into suicide: how it happens and its causes. We know a whole lot more about the sex life of salamanders in Sonoma County than about something that affects us all.”
Katy also noted a taboo against seeking help in her own experience.
“The big thing is people tend to bash getting help. They feel that like it’s a weakness and when you are at that point, honestly you are the lowest you can possibly go for thinking about suicide,” Katy said.
Katy affirms Meyer’s and Gamboa’s sentiments that suicide is a universal danger, but that there’s always help.
“People think that suicide is only happening with gay people, with people who have no friends, with the socially awkward. It doesn’t. It happens with everyone. It happens with jocks, it happens with the incredibly intelligent. It happens everywhere and that needs to be more known. It should be open. Everybody should know that suicide affects everyone and it’s not specific. It affects everyone. And there’s hope.”