With National Suicide Prevention Week last week, one of Ayana’s interns shares her story with mental health advocacy and getting here to Ayana.
I entered college in the fall of 2016, with the same expectations as most freshmen have, thinking I would learn a lot, meet a lot of new people, and have some novel, but exciting experiences. Throughout the first month, my expectations were exceeded, I was loving UCLA, walking by Royce Hall’s glimmering towers everyday in 75 degree weather. What more could I have asked for?
A month into school, my world fell apart. I get a text from a friend from my hometown that says “Are you in class? Something happened, it’s bad. '' I said yes, but it’s okay and asked what had happened. She explained to me that a girl a year younger than us at our high school died by suicide the night before. This girl was not just any girl, her smile lit up every room she walked into, she was at the top of her class, interning with politicians, scholarships lined up. No one saw it coming. I started to feel sick, I got up and left class and laid on the grass and cried for an hour.
It was an odd feeling, I just wasn’t sure how to cope with these news. Obviously, I was ambushed with sadness, but also just confused about how and why she would want to do this? I had only ever seen her smile.
A few days later was Halloween, one of the first big social nights of college, but as a freshman, I had no interest. I went out with some friends for about an hour, but I was so uncomfortable being there when no one knew what was going on. It was the loneliest I had ever felt, but I was in a room with probably over a hundred people.
While being away from home was weird enough, knowing that I wasn’t there to support friends in this time of need, was even harder. I felt lost. At our high school that Friday night was our rival football game, and our student body had asked our rival team to wear purple in honor of the girl that we had lost. As students showed up to the game, they were turned away by security for wearing purple, because they didn’t want them glorifying suicide. This made me furious, I felt that the administration should have started the conversation about suicide, especially when it happens that close to home, to students so young. There was no glorification going on, only remembering and honoring the life we lost.
That triggered me, I knew I couldn’t sit and do nothing while that type of disrespect to mental health and those whom we lose to mental illness had become normalized. That is when I found Active Minds, a student organization that aims to change the conversation around mental health. I thought I would feel comfortable there: putting my pain into work that could save another life might be the best way to go about this, and it was.
Finally, Thanksgiving break arrived, what I thought would be my much needed break to reflect. I was sitting on my kitchen table when my mom got a call from a lifelong family friend. After the call she came back in, clearly holding back tears. She tells my brother and I that our friend from the age of 3, died by suicide the night before Thanksgiving.
That felt like a breaking point for me. How did I lose two beautiful people in this world to an ‘evil’ mental illness?
I went back to school in shock, became very unsocial, did not want to leave my room, did not want to participate in Active Minds. I felt like the hope I had found in doing something with Active Minds was gone because my friend was.
As I edged more and more towards a depressive state, I knew I needed to do something. I was lucky enough to be able to see my symptoms, I know this is not possible for everyone. These feelings were obviously because of my grief, and I had a support system that encouraged me to keep fighting. I thought I would give Active Minds one more try.
I went into the meetings for the rest of the quarter, where they talked about events like a Music in Mind Concert to bring people to talk about mental health through music and the upcoming American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Walk in the Spring. I barely spoke in these meetings, but it almost felt like therapy for me, knowing that these people and I had something in common. We cared about people’s mental health and wanted to find a way to provide resources to those who needed it. It helped. It got me out of my hole of grief and gave me the tools to deal with my pain.
Not that the grief was gone, but I was now putting my heart and soul into this work in order to honor my friends whom I lost. When the Suicide Prevention Walk rolled around in Spring I was able to help plan the event, and met so many people who had been through similar devastating experiences as I had. Being part of a community that dealt with grief allowed me to keep pushing for my friends, to walk when they could no longer walk, and live a life that they would have wanted to live.
It has been a long journey. Overcoming these experiences was not easy, and learning how to talk about it was even harder. There came a point where while doing advocacy work for mental health, I questioned whether or not I was doing this out of guilt. I questioned if I shouldn’t tell people why I am involved in this work. It took months for me to realize that it wasn’t guilt, it was my empathy for anyone struggling with a mental illness. I finally started telling people what led me to Active Minds, and my reason for joining Ayana. It was to honor my friends, Majesty and Tiffany, by saying their name, and acknowledging their battles. I have since found the importance in saying their names while talking about this story. No life lost to suicide should be forgotten because we are afraid to talk about it. It is also my hope that sharing this story will help inspire others to get help and advocate for better mental health resources before they have to go through something like this.
During this moment of growth, I have created a path for myself through my educational and professional life that I hope will allow me to help people who are struggling with mental illnesses, and get resources to those who need them. As the years went on with Active Minds I joined the Board of Directors and have since co-planned many suicide prevention campaigns events.
Last year I was able to spearhead a photo campaign to join Project ‘Semicolon’ on campus. (reference) We took over 200 photos of people that pledged to keep fighting by using a semicolon to end their sentence; because their story wasn’t over. Another event that rolls around every year is the Active Minds’ ‘Send Silence Packing Display’, a display of over 1,000 backpacks that represent the number of college-aged people who take their own lives each year. It’s a heart-wrenching day, but the stories we hear and the people we help with this display will always make it worth it. People who would never usually interact with our mental health events come up and ask us how they could help their friend get help or share their story of losing someone to suicide. It helps grow a community that is prepared to talk about mental health when the time is necessary, and I know that will help make a difference.
Ayana and Ciara
This pain that turned into passion led me here to Ayana. I am currently an intern with Ayana and creating a place where finding the ideal therapist is a privilege and not a right. is something I will always support. Being able to write blogs that provide people with the resources and help they need, like my previous Suicide Prevention Blog, is what keeps me going. This company's mission is something that is so important in closing some of the gaps in the mental health world. Providing accessible therapy with therapists who understand intersectionality and how it effects mental illness could be a huge step in saving lives to suicide. People just need to be understood.