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Banov: Family, friends want to carry on UNC graduate’s mission after her suicide

Priya Balagopal created a GoFundMe before she died by suicide to create awareness of mental illness

Priya Balagopal's sister, Shalini Balagopal, and best friend, Daleena Abraham talk about mental illness and the impact of Priya's GoFundMe page. Priya, a UNC graduate, died by suicide Jan. 11.
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Priya Balagopal's sister, Shalini Balagopal, and best friend, Daleena Abraham talk about mental illness and the impact of Priya's GoFundMe page. Priya, a UNC graduate, died by suicide Jan. 11.

It’s said that people who choose to take their own lives are selfish. That they aren’t thinking of the ones they’re leaving behind. The truth is, I’ve spent the last six years thinking about what I’d leave behind. More importantly, whom.

With those words, Priya Balagopal begins what’s essentially a suicide note that also serves as a thank you to her supportive family and friends – and as a heartbreaking plea for awareness of mental illness.

What makes the lengthy essay so remarkable is that Balagopal posted it on GoFundMe.com, a website used to raise money for all kinds of causes. Balagopal died by suicide on Jan. 11, after years of struggling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. She was 24.

Her Raleigh family started sharing the Web page, titled “The Burden of Mental Illness,” on Jan. 12, shortly after learning of the website’s existence.

Since then, it has drawn national attention and has been shared more than 11,000 times. As of Thursday, it has raised almost $34,000, some of which the family plans to donate to causes that help those with mental illness.

With Balagopal’s missive, her family and friends realize they’ve been tasked with carrying on her goal of making people aware of mental illness in the hopes of preventing others from dealing with the shattered hearts they’re encountering.

“I’m very proud of her,” Geetha Balagopal said about a week after her daughter’s death.

I don’t want her death to be in vain.

Geetha Balagopal, mother of Priya Balagopal

The mother’s voice breaks, and the tears start to form as she draws her hand to her chest.

“I’m so angry at her,” Geetha Balagopal said, “but I don’t want her death to be in vain.”

Family and friends say the post on the fundraising site is “classic Priya,” and that somehow comforts them. She eloquently describes, and uses academic citations, to document her private struggles and what led her to end her life. That she even set up the page to comfort her family and help them with her hospital bills and her student loans also fits her personality. She was thoughtful and fiercely loyal to those she loved.

But the public nature of the UNC graduate’s death makes an already complicated situation even more so.

Balagopal’s family and friends still wonder how they could have helped her. They certainly tried for years. Yet they’re coming to terms that the young woman’s inner pain was so overwhelming that they no longer could.

I met with Geetha Balagopal; her daughter, Shalini Balagopal, 20; and Daleena Abraham, 22, one of Priya Balagopal’s best friends, in the Balagopals’ North Raleigh home.

Over almost three hours, they reminisced about the daughter, sister and friend and how her death cut short the life of a woman who was destined to make a difference. They still talk about her in the present tense; it’s too soon to mention her in the past.

They said she hated the phrase “committed suicide” and would rather say “lost to suicide.” That seems to mesh with how people feel about her death.

“One of the biggest things I struggled with was wondering why it had to be someone as good as her,” said Abraham, a senior at UNC. “She could have accomplished so much. Within these 24 years, she’s touched these many people. I can’t even imagine what she could have done in an entire normal life span.”

Early struggles

From a young age, Priya Balagopal strove for perfection, from her cursive handwriting to her grades. In childhood, she was bullied and learned not to trust her presumed friends. She started high school at Leesville Road High and was at the top of her class but never really felt like she fit in.

When she got to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, where she attended the last two years of high school, she made a few friends and threw herself into volunteer work. She decided she wanted to be a psychiatrist, eventually changing her plans to become a clinical social worker. She continued to place pressure on herself to excel.

One day, Priya Balagopal told her mother during a drive to school that she wanted to end her life.

Geetha Balagopal was stunned that the 17-year-old felt her life was meaningless. She quickly took her daughter to a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication for depression and anxiety.

Geetha Balagopal, like many parents, proudly remembers the dates of her children’s milestones and accomplishments. That also means she can recall in anguishing detail the dates of her daughter’s suicide attempts in 2009, 2013 and 2015.

Shalini Balagopal, a student at N.C. State University, had an occasionally fraught relationship with her only sister, who was older by three years and four months. She also suffers from depression but experienced different symptoms.

“When she looked at me, she saw a younger version of herself, and she hated herself,” Shalini Balagopal said. “It was very difficult for her to deal with me and see me potentially go through whatever she may have gone through or thought about.”

Today, she calls her sister “a straight-up superhero” and has become a family spokesperson in the aftermath of her sister’s death. She wants to share her sister’s words with anyone who will read them.

At UNC, Priya Balagopal flourished. She started to major in psychology, her sister said, partially to understand herself, partially to assist others. She joined the Bhangra Elite dance team, becoming a co-captain of the Indian dance group, and was president of Active Minds, an organization that advocates for mental illness awareness. While she had difficulty making friends when she was younger, she found people like Abraham, around whom she could be her true self.

A girl like Priya, she looks OK on the outside, but she was bleeding on the inside.

Geetha Balagopal, mother of Priya Balagopal

Priya Balagopal was almost like two people. Goofy and funny. Thoughtful and a good listener. While she suffered, she also tried to understand her own condition. In 2012, as president of Active Minds, she organized a visual reminder about suicide, lining up backpacks on campus with each symbolizing a student who had died by suicide. She volunteered for a suicide hotline and wanted to erase the stigma of mental illness.

But 2013 proved to be a difficult year. Priya Balagopal felt isolated and was starting to feel left behind as friends graduated. Her father, Balagopal Nair, lost his job. Family members got into car wrecks, and student loan debt was mounting.

Balagopal says she was raped and was in an abusive relationship earlier in college and still suffered from post-traumatic stress.

“A girl like Priya, she looks OK on the outside, but she was bleeding on the inside,” Geetha Balagopal said.

She tried to kill herself again, and her family says the UNC administration encouraged her not to come back to school. Balagopal wrote that she worried because she lost the National Merit Scholarship and a grant from the School of Science and Mathematics she had received to attend UNC.

“All she wanted to do was finish school,” Shalini Balagopal said.

Hours of chaos

Priya Balagopal took off almost a year, working and receiving treatment, eventually graduating in 2014. She worked in Raleigh for a year with AmeriCorps Access Workforce Development to help the homeless and disabled, among others, find jobs. This past fall, she was readying to move to Douglasville, Ga., where she had been recruited to work at Youth Villages AmeriCorps, a program for troubled youth.

Before she left, she tried to kill herself in September.

“It shocked me to the core,” Geetha Balagopal said. “That attempt was the first time I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to keep her safe from herself.”

Priya Balagopal tried to tell her mom she wouldn’t try again and would seek more help. Geetha Balagopal believed her daughter.

When her daughter came home in December for the holidays, Geetha Balagopal said she looked drained. That appears to be when she created her GoFundMe account. Priya Balagopal selected a photo of herself with a yellow balloon, taken at UNC’s Suicide Awareness Day in September, shortly after that third attempt.

On Jan. 11, friends and family went through several hours of chaos when the young woman was reported missing. They learned later that day that their worst fears had been confirmed.

After the contributions pay for any of the expenses that worried Priya Balagopal, her family members hope to follow through with her mission. They plan to donate some of the funds to Youth Villages. Long term, they want to start a nonprofit and change the stigma of mental illness.

Balagopal had emailed Abraham information on the GoFundMe page, but the family was unaware of its contents in the frenzy of trying to find her.

They say they’ve been humbled by the response to the page and know it’s making a difference. They hope Balagopal’s words let people connected to mental illness know they’re not alone.

For them, it’s never been about the money, but after the contributions pay for any of the expenses that worried Balagopal, they hope to follow through with her mission. They plan to donate some of the funds to Youth Villages. Long term, they want to start a nonprofit and change the stigma of mental illness.

Launching a nonprofit seems daunting at the moment, so for now, they’re going to focus on their own healing and celebrating Balagopal’s life.

“We’re going to live moment by moment, step by step,” Geetha Balagopal said.

In Remembrance

▪ Read Priya Balagopal’s essay at gofundme.com/priyab.

▪ A candlelight vigil is planned for Friday at 7 p.m. in the Pit at UNC-Chapel Hill.

▪ On Saturday, a memorial service will be at 11 a.m. at the Cary Senior Center, 120 Maury Odell Place, Cary.

If you need to talk

▪ HopeLine or Teen TalkLine: 919-231-4525 or 877-235-4525

▪ National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

▪ Wake County Crisis and Assessment: 919-250-1260

What to do

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, here are steps you should take:

▪ Do not leave the person alone.

▪ Inform the person’s parent or other close relative. If at school, tell a teacher.

▪ Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects.

▪ Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

▪ Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK)

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

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