Two clinical social workers in the counseling center at N.C. State University set up a table in The Brickyard in the heart of the main campus a year ago and asked students to tell them how their lives had been impacted by suicide.
Three of the students who stopped to speak with Daniel Goldstein and Noah Martinson that day went a step further this spring and spoke in front of a video camera about the day they attempted to take their own lives and how they persevered. The resulting eight-minute video, #StopTheStigma, was unveiled this month at a suicide prevention vigil in The Brickyard.
All three students – Baysha Bernales, Wyatt Bond and Claudia McDonald – say they hadn’t planned to talk publicly about their suicide attempts before they saw the table in The Brickyard that day last September. But they say they decided to share their personal, still painful stories with the campus community and the world in hopes others won't be afraid or embarrassed to seek help for themselves or someone else.
“I’m not ashamed about who I am and what I’ve done,” said Bond, 23, a junior studying middle-school education. “And I care enough to say that other people don’t need to be ashamed of it either. And they should ask for help.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Americans age 15 to 24, after accidents, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Within that age group, the rate is higher among college-aged. In 2013, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available, 3,130 people age 20 to 24 took their own lives in the U.S., a rate of 13.7 per 100,000, which is above the national average.
Martinson says he suspects the rate is higher among people in their early 20s who aren’t on a college campus, where they would have access to counseling and other support.
“Pretty much every day, students get walked over to the counseling center by a concerned friend,” he said. “Sometimes those friends wait in the waiting room for the entire length of the appointment for them. To me that is an incredible display of caring.”
At the same time, the impact of a student’s suicide can be magnified on a college campus, as news spreads to thousands of peers through social media and other means. A few days after this month’s suicide prevention vigil in The Brickyard, hundreds showed up for two more vigils for a student who took his own life last week by jumping from a classroom building on campus.
As the name #StopTheStigma implies, the video and the counseling center’s website aim to make it easier for people to talk about suicide.
“Suicide has been a scary thing to discuss. People don't ask about it because they are afraid of what they might hear,” Martinson said. “We can make it safe to discuss and give people an idea of what to do – talk about it and get help – if they or a friend are suicidal.”
Bernales, a 23-year-old Florida native in her second year of a Ph.D. physics program at N.C.State, said she was nervous about telling her story in the video.
“The idea that thousands of people could possibly see this video – I was scared. I was very scared,” she said. “But I also knew I had to get it out for my own healing, to move past how scared I was. Not talking about it is how people fall through the cracks.”
The video was made by StoryDriven Media Group, a Durham company that trains people how to use the power of storytelling for their cause or organization, said founder Nathan Clendenin. Martinson and Goldstein attended a workshop the company held on campus last winter and arranged for a crew from StoryDriven to videotape interviews with the students in May.
McDonald, a 19-year-old sophomore in the business management program, says it took her a week to decide to go on camera. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to delve back into that time of her life and wondered how people would look at her.
“I asked myself all of those questions, and I realized that regardless of people knowing, it shouldn’t matter,” she said. “I feel like people don’t talk about it because they’re scared of other people’s opinions. I was ashamed of what I had been through until I realized there was nothing to be ashamed of.”
The video begins with each of the three students writing on a small chalkboard on their laps, then holding it up so the viewer can see a date – the time they attempted suicide. They go on to describe their emotions and the circumstances that led them to the edge, and then what stopped them.
“More than anything I was just thinking about my parents and my brother and actually my dog and how much I would miss them,” Bond says. “And that I just didn’t want to be without them. And I didn’t want to do that to them.”
The students describe how they got help, from therapists, family and friends and from themselves. They share the wisdom they learned from their experiences, often addressing people who might be in the same position they were.
“The things that you hate about yourself now will someday be things that you overcome and that make you a stronger person,” Bernales says.
Going into the project, Bernales said, she thought the video would be a success if it kept one person from taking her own life. She’s tempted to count herself on that score.
This summer, her fiance broke off their engagement, and she felt herself backsliding emotionally. Then, two days before its premier on campus, Bernales saw the finished #StopTheStigma video for the first time.
“I watched the movie, and it was like looking at someone else,” she said. “There was someone who was so strong and fierce and courageous.”
“I’ve never been as proud of myself as when I watched that video.”
Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739
See the video
#StopTheStigma can be found on the website of the N.C. State University Counseling Center, counseling.dasa.ncsu.edu/ The center can be reached at 919-515-2423. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800-273-8255.
Suicide in America
▪ In 2013, 41,149 people took their own lives, a rate of 13 per 100,000 residents
▪ White males had the highest suicide rate, 23.4 per 100,000
▪ Black females had the lowest suicide rate, 2 per 100,000
▪ Among age groups, the middle-aged, 45 to 64, had the highest suicide rate, 19 per 100,000
▪ Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in 2013 overall, but the second leading cause for people age 15 to 24.
Source: America Society of Suicidology