You Are Not Alone

On the cloudiest day last week, before the clock tower sounded four resounding rings, the Student Center Terrace bustled with passersby. Campus groups put up posters, spread out electric candles and colorful cardstock. They waited until 4 p.m. before gathering an audience. Once the bells rang, the Counseling Center staff and students from the Peer Educator Program warmly greeted and corralled students to participate in the center’s most powerful event yet — “Survivors of Suicide.”

This year marked the third annual “Survivors of Suicide: You are Not Alone” event put on by the Counseling Center on Thursday, Nov. 20. The Counseling Center, the LGBT Resource Center, International Center, EAP Cascade Center, Campus Assault Resources and Education Center (C.A.R.E) office, Veteran Services and UC Graduate Division participated in solidarity.

Having garnered tremendous support in previous years, the event returned with old and new healing activities. There was the traditional candlelight vigil where participants could write notes to lost loved ones or thoughts related to suicide onto clear plastic cups, placing candles inside. Students lined these cups along the bottom of the Student Center Terrace stage where speakers would talk about their experiences coping with suicide. There was also a dream tree where students wrote their goals and dreams.

Last year, the event was forced to move inside the Student Center when it rained. Even though last Thursday was gray, cool and overcast, the weather held up nice enough for everyone to remain outside. Director of the Counseling Center Dr. Jeanne Manese was thankful to be in front of the Student Center Terrace for a change.

“This year we tried to address the event a little more publicly, so that there is stigma reduction,” Manese said.

One table was dedicated to the LGBT Resource Center. Dr. Carolyn O’Keefe works at the Counseling Center and also advises the LGBT Mentoring Program.

“LGBT students are at increased risk for thoughts of suicide and thoughts of self-harm, so I think it’s really important for us to have representation at events like this to take away some of the stigma, build awareness and show to the community that there are places to turn to,” O’Keefe said.

Since its programming began two years ago, the International Center has also collaborated with the Counseling Center because mental health concerns sometimes come up for international students. Whether issues stem from cultural adjustments or homesickness, they want to show their support and rally behind suicide prevention.

Ultimately, the event really resonated once the speeches started. UC Irvine history professor, Bob Moeller, was the first speaker of the evening.

Moeller spoke about a very close friend who took his life five years ago. Their friendship began during college in 1974. Moeller described his friend as a fraternity boy who was captain of the soccer team, wore khaki pants and bow ties. On the other hand, Moeller wore tie-dye shirts and jeans.

“It was an unlikely friendship but we found our way to each other,” Moeller said.

They shared many moments together and had a longtime friendship of trust, acceptance and love.

“He was an amazing, loving father and husband, an accomplished poet, an incredible teacher and he had a serious mental illness,” Moeller said.

Over the microphone, Moeller struggled to hold back tears as he recalled a moment that he will never forget. One day, when he returned home from the farmers market, his wife told him his friend killed himself. Moeller said he will never get past the death of his dear friend.

“We don’t really talk about what killed him,” said Moeller. “But it wasn’t the handgun — it was mental illness.”

The second speaker, alumna Caroline Nguyen, knows that topics like mental health, depression and suicide are never easy to navigate. But silence is the most harmful option to choose. She knows firsthand that a lack of conversation feeds the stigma that isolates affected members of our community.

“By sitting here in this very public location, you all are part of the movement that seeks to break the stigma of things like mental health concerns and things like suicide,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen wanted to speak about her own ongoing recovery as a survivor of suicide. When she was a young girl, her mother began to slip away from her. She was lost in the “toxic clutch” of severe depression. Nguyen remembers how during her mother’s bad weeks, her mother would shake and cry to the point where her body convulsed. She would grab her daughter’s hair and beg her to say she loved her. Her mother never sought mental health care, partly out of misplaced shame. Then, four years ago when she was 19, her mother committed suicide.

After facing such a devastating loss, she felt extreme anxiety and was only able to sleep four times a week. She had graphic dreams and flashbacks and still has them. She felt at constant war with her mind.

Some of the things that were therapeutic for Nguyen included frequently going on road-trips. Whenever she felt too overwhelmed, she could leave for a while. On days when she felt turmoil, road-trips helped her find beauty in the world. Community service also helped her greatly.

“For me personally, after such a devastating loss, I became more acutely sensitive to the struggles of others and I recognized with growing clarity the importance of practicing consistent compassion in my life,” said Nguyen. “I began volunteering with different organizations. I learned, very quickly, that the best path through the pain was to integrate myself into the community and live productively, rather than alienating myself.”

Nguyen openly talked about the gritty details of suicide because she said she was not going to sterilize what the aftermath of suicide is like. For example, when she reached out several times for help to an old teacher, she shut her out.

“I cannot even begin to tell you how much that affected me,” said Nguyen. “I can only describe the pain as bone deep. Her turning a cold shoulder to me reinforced the belief that I was in this alone and that there was no room in this society for people like me, or people like my mom or families like mine.”

Nguyen said that what would have helped was finding support when she reached out. “I am standing here in front of you, urging you to not do what I did. I am urging you to not reside yourself to a life of isolation.”

By the end of Moeller and Nguyen’s testimonials, many in the audience were in tears.

“Survivors of Suicide” is only one of many events the Counseling Center hosts to build awareness and reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. For the upcoming quarters, another big event will be held called “Friends Helping Friends,” which offers free psycho-educational workshops for health and wellness. Peer Educator Coordinator Carmen Victor helped with “Survivors of Suicide” and will implement “Friends Helping Friends.”

“We want people to feel comfortable with reaching out to others and asking for help,” Victor said.

Christian Cacho, the coordin tor of Challenging All Men to Prevent Sexism (C.H.A.M.P.S.) in C.A.R.E. felt that the event resounded with him. Cacho has friends who have contemplated suicide and he always extends a hand to show them a way out, but he wants everyone to reach out as well.

“You could kind of tell from the people who were walking by us that this [event] is something that they’re not conditioned to see or understand because [suicide] hasn’t happened to them — but this shouldn’t be the case. It should be like the bystander effect, where it’s an issue for all of us, and that as a community, we should be active in helping or trying to provide resources for people who need it.”