Student advocate Richard Prinz sits across from a student in his office. He listens to her talk and tries to understand her story.
After she shares, Prinz contemplates the situation, thinking about the best way to move forward. He could call her parents, call the School Resource Officers (SRO) to get her immediate professional care or he could simply continue talking to her to better assess the situation. But to him, the most important thing is that the student has taken the first step to recovering: she has admitted that she has been dealing with thoughts of self-harm.
“I think the first step is wanting to work on something, whatever it is,” Prinz said. “One of our first go-to’s to cope with something is denial, [which] doesn’t promote mental health. People who say ‘I have a problem. I want to put in energy to change my mindset,’ [are on the right track]. It’s mainly just be[ing] willing to talk and finding somebody to listen.”
Program lead of Santa Clara Suicide and Crisis services Edward Subega, agrees that willingness to talk is the first, crucial step on the path to recovery. Subega says his job as a listener is to validate patients’ feelings and make them understand that their situation doesn’t make them a damaged or broken person.
“You have to acknowledge that [the student] is going through painful times,” Subega said. “Suicide is something you have to deal with for the rest of your life. You have to make them understand that it’s okay, that it’s normal. Normalizing everything is really important.”
Subega believes that normalization is essential to the recovery process as it helps his patients overcome the sense of isolation that mental health issues can often bring. He also emphasizes the difference between thoughts and action, to make his patients stop feeling responsible or terrified by every dark thought.
“[Sometime in their life], everyone has wished that they weren’t born or that they weren’t alive in that specific moment,” Subega said. “That doesn’t mean that they want to kill themselves, it just means that life is difficult for them at the moment and they wish that they had a way out. I think it’s normal to think about dying. I don’t think we have any control over what thoughts come up. It’s more about what we do about those thoughts that matters.”
Similarly, Gunn HS journalism adviser Kristy Blackburn believes that sensationalizing suicide only triggers thoughts of death by suicide or self-harm. To promote wellness on GHS’ campus and to shift the focus towards healing, she and her staff created a project called Changing the Narrative, where survivors share their authentic stories in hopes of reaching those still struggling with mental issues.
“I think that when someone is in a dark spot, they’re not seeing the world as good as they could, so there’s a lot of misperception and distortion,” Blackburn said. “When we sensationalize death by suicide, people feel, ‘If I also harm myself then I will get attention like that too.’ So, one thing I really talked about with The Oracle is the idea of not memorializing people that would create a lot of sensational information about the person.”
Prinz agrees that gory details about suicide only impede the recovery process for others — he has also noticed that the recovery process differs for all students dealing with mental issues. Some require more immediate, professional attention while others just need somebody willing to hear their feelings and provide support. One thing Prinz keeps constant in his treatment process is prioritizing the safety of the student above all else.
“First, you want to make sure they’re safe,” Prinz said. “If [the situation] requires hospitalization, then they would immediately be taken to a place where they could receive professional care in a safe environment. Every situation is different. It’s scary. You don’t know and they don’t know where they’re going, what’s going to happen next and how their parents are going to respond.”
Prinz explains that mental issues are in no way permanent. With support and professional care, Prinz believes everyone can rise past dark parts of their lives. Prinz also explains that those who have overcome suicide, depression or self-harm and are honest about their experiences can serve as a “beacon” for others that are still struggling with their feelings.
“I think people [who overcome suicide, self-harm or depression] can go on to be very helpful to others,” Prinz said. “They become somebody who has had a lot of experience. I’ve never been suicidal but I’ve had panic attacks and anxiety and I’ve been depressed, so I know a little bit of what it feels like. I can’t say I know exactly what it feels like for somebody else. But people can get through it then go on to be a resource for others.”
Similar to Prinz, Blackburn believes that survivors can go on to help others fight their own mental battles by telling their own vulnerable stories, though the Changing the Narrative project allows for only 30 percent trauma and 70 percent recovery significantly shifting the focus from suicide to the recovery process at GHS.
“[Changing the Narrative] is about acknowledging that something painful had happened on campus and in our community but also, ‘Here’s how we’re moving forward, here’s how we can help each other,’” Blackburn said. “The focus is how to get through a hard time just so people know that they can do it. It’s not always life shattering topics, but it is always about ‘Here’s how I recovered from it.’”
Prinz also explains that overcoming mental health issues allows one to connect with the ‘darker’ aspects of their own identity. He believes that all humans have a deep capacity for darkness and pain, and connecting with it makes them more human.
“You get in touch with that part of you that’s really sad or really down and you can develop compassion for others,” Prinz said. “It’s humbling, it makes you more human, more in touch with feelings, not just blocking them out.”
Subega agrees that overcoming mental health issues makes one stronger, but unlike Prinz, he doesn’t believe that a person fully recovers. However, he does believe that the battle becomes easier after they’ve triumphed once.
“When people are going through ideas of self-harm or suicide and they are able to work through it, it becomes easier the next time, but it doesn’t necessarily go away completely,” Subega said. “There’s still a next time. You may not get good at it but it does get easier every time.”
Unlike Subega, Prinz believes that completely overcoming mental health issues is possible. He explains that in the Western model of optimal mental health, mental health is only addressed when a person develops serious mental issues, such as suicidal thoughts or depression. He prefers the Eastern model, which teaches that optimal mental health is living a life without any suffering — indicating that everyone has healing to do, not just those with issues.
“[Optimal mental health is] being free and finding that unconditional love within yourself, instead of it being conditional,” Prinz said. “I think the sky is the limit to ‘optimal mental health,’ the sky meaning you can be totally free of suffering. That’s a long way off. It’s always a work in progress, for everybody.”