Priya Balagopal would have given anything to end the suffering she saw all around her, her friends said.
She donated her time to helping children in low-income communities, survivors of sexual assault and people with mental illness.
Her friends said the recent UNC graduate from Raleigh’s bright smile and infectious laugh would light up any room she entered.
Beneath her bubbly exterior, however, Balagopal, 24, was waging a war within herself. She revealed to her close friends that every day she struggled to get out of bed.
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Two weeks ago, after a long struggle with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, Balagopal committed suicide, her sister Shalini Balagopal said on Facebook.
Before her death, Balagopal set up a gofundme campaign, “The Burden of Mental Illness,” to help her family pay her medical expenses and student loans, totaling $21,000.
In her post, she shared her story.
“To be honest, I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting,” she wrote. “I’m tired of feeling like a prisoner in my own body. Like a spectator of my own life. That’s what mental illness does to you. I tried to hold out for as long as I could. But every bad day, every disappointment, every heartbreak, every anxiety attack just reminded me that my time here had an expiration date.”
Balagopal created the campaign in December and gave the password to her friend Daleena Abraham.
“When people read her story I hope they know it doesn’t have to end this way and that they learn something from her story and maybe find strength in it,” Abraham said.
Balagopal’s campaign has raised more than $31,000 – money left after the bills are paid will go to charity – and her post has been shared 11,000 times.
“My mother was crying when she saw it,” Shalini Balagopal said. “My mother said, ‘I’d trade every dollar if I could have my daughter back.’”
Wanted to help
Balagopal, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2014, wanted to become a social worker. She was in Georgia working with troubled youth through AmeriCorps when she died by suicide.
“She wanted people who are suffering to know they’re not alone; even in her death she wants to be there for people,” Abraham said. “She would have made such a big impact on millions of people if she had more time.”
Balagopal sought out people she thought she could help.
She identified as a rape survivor and took part in The Courage Project, which featured photos and testimonials of victims of sexual assault. She volunteered for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center and worked at a suicide hotline.
“She fought so, so hard for survivors of sexual and relationship violence to be believed and supported,” said Landen Gambill, a fellow survivor who worked with Balagopal. “She stood up for survivors when people blamed them and attacked them. She listened to survivors that needed support and was always, always there for them.”
Balagopal was the president of Active Minds at Carolina, an organization devoted to de-stigmatizing mental illnesses.
The group said in a statement that she would do whatever it took to help others, even walking students to Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC if they were too nervous to go alone.
In North Carolina, 33 percent of young adults ages 18-25 self-report mild or moderate depression, according to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among North Carolinians ages 15 to 24. place_fact1
Abraham met Balagopal when she tried out for UNC’s Bhangra Elite dance team. Balagopal was a captain her junior and senior years.
“I was nobody to her, just someone trying out for the team, but she made me feel welcomed in a way nobody else did,” Abraham said.
Though Balagopal was open about her depression and anxiety, she kept the details private.
“She put on a very hard exterior, she was a very genuine person and so lovable and so approachable, but it was heartbreaking to hear what she had to deal with,” Abraham said. “Even though she was this bright, beautiful soul, you could see, even from a distance, that something was wrong.
“There was this sadness in her eyes.”
In North Carolina, 33 percent of young adults ages 18-25 self-report mild or moderate depression, according to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among North Carolinians ages 15 to 24.
Balagopal had struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts since she was a teenager.
According to her gofundme post, she made her first suicide attempt while she was in high school at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. Though she immediately sought treatment, she said the administration was reluctant to let her return.
At UNC, just a few months before she was scheduled to graduate, she made her second suicide attempt. She took brief medical leave, but in her gofundme post she said the administration pressured her to take more time off.
“They may have thought they were acting in my best interests, but they didn’t understand the burden my family would have to deal with if I had to spend another semester at school,” she wrote.
She wanted people who are suffering to know they’re not alone; even in her death she wants to be there for people.
Friend Daleena Abraham
All UNC students may visit Counseling and Psychological Services for brief counseling, crisis therapy, psychiatric treatment or to seek emergency medical withdrawal. An emergency withdrawal can occur at any point in the semester, even through the last day of classes.
Maureen Windle, associate director for Counseling and Psychological Services, said in the past two years anxiety has surpassed depression as students’ most common concern.
Ten to 15 percent of all students at UNC will interact with CAPS, Windle said. Most students seeking brief therapy feel like they are done after four to six sessions, but arrangements can be made for long-term treatment, she said.
“Students who are concerned about the safety of a friend may reach out to CAPS or the Office of the Dean of Students, which has the ability to intervene if they feel a student is a danger to themselves,” Windle said.
Students who must take a leave of absence are evaluated by a committee in the Dean of Students Office. If it determines a student is at risk and must take time off, the student must seek treatment and petition to be re-admitted.
Balagopal’s gofundme post offered ways for people to help.
“You can tell someone you love that you care about them today,” she wrote. “You can encourage your friends to talk about their mental health. You can offer to provide a listening ear to someone you know who is struggling, or sign up to volunteer for a crisis hotline. You can research the way that mental health services are funded where you live and how they could be stronger. In the state where I’m from, North Carolina, regional offices cut $110 million from the mental health budget just last year.”
People having suicidal thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text BRAVE to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line.