Last year, right around this time, I wrote cryptically about a crisis in our lives. I did not share any details, but those who knew me personally were spared nothing. I did not go dark out of shame. I was not incommunicado out of embarassment. I was silent out of respect.
Now, a year later, with the dust having (mostly) settled, the process having morphed into a positive and Harrison’s being totally onboard, I am prepared to share.
It was a Sunday night and I’d just settled in with the Sunday crossword and a cup of tea, readying for the week ahead. My cell phone rang and all I heard on the other end was screaming and then a screech. I knew it was Harrison, but I could not understand a single word. He was shouting (no, screaming) at such a high decibel that it hurt my ears. The urgency and hysteria in his voice in concert with the outside noises told me everything that I needed to know. He had hit an emotional wall and came dangerously close to hitting a real one. I thank G-d every day the he had the presence of mind to call me or this would have ended very differently. He was trying to kill himself.
Holding the cell phone, Harrison still screaming inaudibly, I frantically Googled the number for the University police and with shaking hands called them from the land line. They managed to track him down and stop him. The sounds of their interaction, simultaneously muffled and deafening, left me breathless and terrified. The fact that I could hear his voice, however despondent, gave me just a morsel of peace. He was alive.
I grabbed my keys and ran to my car to be with him. Two grueling and terrifying hours later I arrived at the hospital and found a child I did not recognize.
They got him stable. They admitted him to the locked ward. They kept him safe.
Close to a week later, we put him in the car to head home. No, we weren’t heading home, we were heading directly to the ER in our town so that he could be placed in a day program. where he would have the support and expertise of a team of therapists. When he was there, I was desperately searching for a psychiatrist who was not only taking new patients, but was, more to the point: in town. August is the month that most of the psychiatrists are out of town, regrouping from the intensity of their jobs. I knew from past experience, that it was not going to be easy. Thanks to some good will and better connections, I was able to find a wonderful therapist…he was the second act of saving my son’s life.
Clearly Harrison would not be returning to school that semester. But, and this was a huge but, he was the current President/Master of his fraternity; a role he took very seriously. He was so concerned about not letting his brothers down, so worried about leaving them in the lurch, so anxious about how they would react. He need not have worried. To a person, these frat boys were amazing. Supportive. Kind. Loving. Afraid.
He returned to school in January. In the months that he was home, he worked incredibly hard to heal himself. He completed the coursework and (easily) passed the test to be a Nationally Certified EMT. He went on Birthright to Israel with several of his brothers. He worked his ass of getting himself to a (way, way, way) better place.
Fast forward to last week, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where the annual International Conference for his fraternity, AEPi, was being held. Weeks earlier, the big guy (aka the Executive Director, Andy) had asked Harrison if he was willing to share his story. He did not hesitate to accept the invitation. And then, on a sweltering Thursday afternoon, he got up, with his mother, sister and grandmothers in the audience, and told it like it is. And he was dynamite.
On paper it is powerful. In person, it was outstanding. Mesmerizing. Courageous. Following two standing ovations, he was swarmed with Brothers thanking him for talking about it and asking him to come to their Chapter. These are young men who like to party, who work hard, who always have one another’s backs, but often keep things bottled up. It thrills me to know he reached some of them.
With his permission, here is the text of his speech.
Before I get started; can you please rise if you, or if you know someone who suffers from mental health issues… Thank you, please be seated.
A year ago, almost to the day, I tried to kill myself.
One minute, I was returning from Convention in Cleveland; going about my regular routine. The next: police and paramedics from two departments. I felt sheer terror, hopelessness and confusion – with an endless array of intense emotions all at once. I would share more details, but to be frank I don’t remember much of it at all. Just snippets here and there. I was stone cold sober.
I am looking to pass my message to even just one of you before me. I also think this permits me to say the cliché: “the following may save your life”.
Andy was so very generous by granting me the honor of speaking before all of my brothers, so I want to take this time to start a dialogue on something that makes many uncomfortable. Mental heath. It’s always been out there, but for far too long we haven’t been willing to talk about it.
Mental health. I say this in front of such an intimate yet diverse crowd. I know most all of you are my brothers, that tells me so much about you. Regardless of how well I know each one of you individually, I’m certain that the core beliefs, ideals, and morals held by many of us are quite similar — and that is such a powerful feeling. I regret not having the opportunity to get know your personal experiences, backgrounds, and politics, but hopefully I will come to know more of you in time.
Mental health. What do you think of? I can simply speculate that people are thinking anything from the Asylums of the earlier part of the 20th century, or all the way to “a whole bunch-a bullshit”. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health an estimated 18% of US Adults suffer with a mental illness in a given year. Gladly there are no longer the Asylums of days past still lingering around, but this whole mental health thing is by no means bullshit.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2nd leading cause of death for those 15-24 is suicide. More specifically, the leading cause of undergraduate deaths which was attributed to suicide with 6.18 deaths on average per 100,000 students. Alcohol was far from number one, attributed with 3.37 deaths per 100,000 students – and that’s alcohol related traffic fatalities. We are always talking about alcohol safety; 1.49 out of 100,000 students die of alcohol fatalities not related to traffic incidents. Now, just think about how many kids may go to your school. It may be many, or perhaps very few. That doesn’t negate the fact that 100,000 is not all that big of a number; and when these lives can easily be saved, why are we not doing something? Why are we not focused on the population of students that is greater than 400% of the deaths due to alcohol intoxication – the students who take their own lives.
We all get coughs and colds, hopefully nothing more severe, but we all still get sick from time to time. Our brains are incredibly complex organs and sometimes things get a bit out of whack. Just like any other part of your body, your brain is sensitive too. That’s completely normal.
Can you remember a few weeks where you just felt really down? Maybe you didn’t feel like doing much or you lost interest in your hobbies. You had trouble sleeping, felt worthless, and you might have experienced difficulties focusing, too. I know we’ve all been there; we’ve come to understand this is part of the reality of life. If we allow these difficult periods to persist—it can get exponentially worse. Perhaps you’ve seen this escalation in your roommate, a friend, a brother. These are all classic symptoms indicative of a Major Depressive Episode and if left untreated, what was just an ‘episode’ can develop into full blown Depression. The leading cause of suicide; untreated Depression.
Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your roommate, your friend. Not saying or doing anything and “pushing through it” is no way to go about it.
I’m guilty of it myself. At the time of my crisis, I was the Master of my chapter; I had been dealing with depression for years but it wasn’t something I shared with many of my friends since I was also their leader and felt I needed to present in a certain manner. I tried gritting my teeth and kept that entire depressed side of me hidden from everyone to appear more confident as a leader. Once everything happened, it was decided I wouldn’t be coming back for my second term as president or to school at all for that matter. I wrote to my chapter about what happened, I had no choice but to drop my guard completely. While I kept a façade up for my term as Master; I was put in a position where I simply knew keeping it to myself was not an option any longer. I immediately notified our Lieutenant Master whom also happens to be both a dear friend as well as my fraternal big brother. I shared with him every detail; much of which even he hadn’t known whatsoever. It was when I told him that I realized my mistake all along.
We worked side by side; a force (I would like to think) to be reckoned with and making major strides alongside our brothers to help further build and strengthen our chapter. We were on the same page for everything; communication was the first priority. Communication regarding the fraternity, that is. While going about my day to day; I was in constant contact with most of my brothers. Throughout the day, it was business; debating fraternal politics and arguing over hot topics within the chapter. Organizing events, communicating with external organizations; the list goes on. My brothers and my friends are one in the same. I know for many of us here; the same goes. I lost sight of who I was talking to day in and day out and what I needed for myself as a person. I never gave myself a chance to step back and talk to these same people about my issues as just friends. It was always other issues; but never mine. As Master, and due in part to (as hard as it can be to say) my ego, I felt that needed to be kept bottled up when it came to my own personal struggles.
When I sent my first email to my chapter where I told my story and that I wouldn’t be able to come back for the coming fall, the Brotherly love and support that I was shown was unbelievable. At the time, I worried about negative perceptions surrounding my need to step down. Everything I had always strived for was with the sole intention of the betterment of the chapter; I was upset with myself for having had figuratively shot myself in the foot. I was surrounded by support but I used that support for everything other than myself. I could have easily turned to a friend but I let my ego and stubbornness stop me.
For the undergraduate brothers in attendance; please. I can imagine most all of you are Masters, Lieutenant Masters, I have met a large number of rush chairs and a number of other positions as well. Some of you are aspiring future leaders – both within your chapter and then on to even bigger things. I’ve been in many of your shoes. I cannot say I have seen it all, because I have not. I cannot say I know how each and every one of you might feel, because I don’t. What I do know is that I almost made a big mistake and I know there is no reason for anyone else to have to do the same.
It’s not always about a leadership position, or a job – if you see it that way. A relationship ending; family problems at home and just life in general can lead to some pretty significant distress. We are all affected by this.
Let’s say that some of these feelings resonate with you, or maybe a friend comes to mind. Whether it’s yourself or someone else; it need not matter – no one should have to feel this way and there are plenty of ways to get help.
Now what? There’s no right or wrong way of going about getting help, but doing nothing is going to end up doing more damage than good. The best starting point is one of your close friends. I have a number of friends who come and speak to me about some things on their mind, I’m just a set of ears but sometimes that’s all that someone needs. You know your friends, choose one whose perspective you appreciate and you trust and they might surprise you.
It goes both ways, you should never hesitate to approach a friend and ask them if everything is alright. Even if they decline, they know the offer still stands. Knowing someone is there can be a major factor in someone’s safety and happiness, just think about that. A few words, an offer to listen – that can save a person’s life.
Maybe things have gotten a little too serious, you don’t think you can talk to a friend about whatever’s on your mind or going on in your life. Every college has some sort of Psychological Services. They have staff on duty that can help with a variety of situations. For some, their therapists work for the school’s psych services making things all that much easier. This is a great resource to use. For a lot of people, it’s just a stepping stone. I saw a counselor at my school once when I just needed to talk to someone. There’s no shame in it whatsoever.
The scary stuff is just that. Scary. Having experienced it from both sides, people in crisis threatening suicide is a truly terrifying experience and it’s easy to fumble around with the situation. If you ever find yourself with someone in this frenzied state, do whatever you can (within reason) to ensure their safety. If someone else hasn’t already, have someone then call for an ambulance. It may seem illogical, but as an EMT I can tell you firsthand that we are all trained in mental health scenarios and they will be able to handle the situation once they arrive.
It may not be entirely necessary to summon emergency services though. If it’s possible, you just want to get to an emergency room and just taking a car is just as effective if the situation allows. Emergency rooms have staff on duty 24/7/365 who specialize in mental health. They can help you plan the next steps, whatever they need be.
Never hesitate to do or say something. If you’re feeling down, or something is on your mind that’s really getting to you, talk to someone. If you see a friend who is in need, do for them as you would want for you. Doing nothing is the worst route to go.
The thought of suicide did not so much as show up as a blip among everything that had been going through my head. Let me tell you, there was a lot. While I was infinitely hopeless, I never thought of taking my own life. For others, they make seemingly empty threats until suddenly following through. No two cases are alike. Everyone has a breaking point; and this is precisely what we can prevent. No one should ever reach a point of desperation, where they feel everything is too far gone and all is lost; and they take their own life.
Everyone please stand. First row please sit. Second row… Ninth row. That’s how many brothers we lost today, take a look around.
Everyone please be seated.
It’s enough of this reactive crap. We watch it happen day after day; 117 on average to give you an idea. 117 people. You can’t be ‘reactive’ to a suicide. We need to be proactive and we need to start now. Here. Now. We are too strong of an organization to let this harm us. We need to be reaching out and helping ourselves, each other and the world. Yes, we are all brothers of Alpha Epsilon Pi. We are also brothers of this world. Be a force. Drop the stigma. Stand up to your challenges. Let us help one another.
Take care of yourself. Take care of your brothers; your sisters. Take care of your fathers; especially your mothers. Take care of your friends. Look out for your neighbors. Smile to a stranger on the street. You have no idea what they are thinking about or even the slightest idea how great of an impact a random act of kindness could have on them.
I want to thank everyone for your time and attention and can only hope that this can help someone, somehow. Please; do not let this be the end of this conversation. I invite you to continue this with both myself and those around you.
A few familiar words, for which I attribute to my still being here, seem an appropriate way to conclude. Please feel free to join:
No one could tell me me where my soul might be;
I searched for G-d, but He eluded me;
I sought my Brother out and found all three.