when the journalist meets his intractable subject


Note: The article discusses suicide and depression. FOR ALL LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCIES, CALL 9-11 and request a Crisis Intervention Team. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is (800) 273-8255.

Near the midway point of my freshman year of college, I — like any self-respecting budding journalist — gave myself a deadline. By 21, right after graduating from college, maybe a bit before — I was willing to be flexible — I would be dead. It was easier, initially, to imagine myself dying from some disease or car accident. I could at least give my friends and family the pretense that I wasn’t asking for it, that some part of me still clung to the everyday optimism of youth. But, if fate wasn’t cooperative, I could do the dirty work myself. I’d have an easy, painless death to send me off into nothingness, where I wouldn’t have to bother anyone anymore.

I’ve scared you now, I’m sure. We journalists like to do that, don’t we? Throw all the creepy, horrifying stuff in the opening paragraph to make you keep reading. That’s how we in the media like to write about mental health: get all the juicy, horrific stuff out of the way first to appease our voyeuristic love to read about the suffering of others.

Just look at the widely acclaimed ESPN article about Madison Holleran, the former Penn freshman who committed suicide. How does it begin? “On the morning of Jan. 17, 2014, Madison Holleran awoke in her dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania.” Jan. 17 being, of course, the day she died. We learn that soon enough when the writer, Kate Fagan, ends the opening section by telling us that Holleran “took a running leap off the ninth level of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia.”

It’s a brutal image, cinematic even, and it does exactly what a journalist is supposed to do: provide a colorful, vivid scene to set up a longer narrative. Madison Holleran, like any subject of a profile, has to fit into some narrative arc. In Fagan’s piece, Holleran was a master of deception — portraying a sunny exterior while battling her inner demons without anyone else knowing. It’s an empathetic stance, a powerful one, but way too easy.

After reading Fagan’s article — the best of a sad, long trend in the journalism of mental health — I wondered what my life’s own arc would potentially be. A successful high school student, reasonably well-liked, one of the graduation speakers, goes off to Penn, his dream school, and what? If I died last year, would it mean, like so many thought of Madison, that I couldn’t handle the pressure of a competitive Ivy League school? Or what about this year? Maybe I was lonely and couldn’t find any friends? Junior year — too much pressure to find a job or get into a good grad school? I just couldn’t handle it? Senior year — not ready to leave the comfortable confines of college? There’s my Facebook page with all the smiling, happy pictures. Was I as deceptive as Madison? Was I just leading an elaborate pretense?

Journalists require closure. “Where does this tie up?” says the competent editor when given a story of broken threads, gaps, and missing pieces. “What’s the point of this?” Penn doesn’t have a large psychological services staff. Wait times for appointments are too long. Ergo, students commit suicide. Ta-da! Tie a bow on it and call it a day! We want to treat mental health and suicide with the same syllogism we apply to every other issue far too complex for a daily newspaper to explore. Give us a comment. Did you know her well? Was she depressed? Why did she do this? We read stories that tell us nothing and everything. He died late last night, according to an email sent by the Dean of the College. The cause of death was suicide. Funeral arrangements will be held…

One of the reasons I thought I wanted to die after graduating from college was to avoid becoming that name in an interchangeable sentence. Dan, a College sophomore, committed suicide yesterday. An email to members of the College of Arts and Sciences read, “We deeply mourn the loss of…” Dying after graduation could mean dying in peace.  No one would have to pretend to care. No reporter would have to sully their time in calling my parents to ask them why I broke their hearts/ There would no piece sensationalizing something the newspapers barely tried to understand.

Mental illness is often inexplicable. Explaining why someone commits suicide is often a futile task. A journalist can never get the full answer because the person suffering often doesn’t have one either.

I have chronically low self-esteem. The few girls I’ve been with had to essentially extract my interest in them out of me by force before I risk putting myself out there for rejection. And, when they leave, and God knows they always do, I wish them well, knowing they’ll find someone smarter, more attractive, and kinder. My friends talk about their five-year plans, what they want their families to look like, how many kids they want. I brush them off, joking that I can barely get through the week, let alone think about five years down the line. Really, I’m not even certain I’ll be here then. I can’t stop saying “I’m sorry.” All I want to do is be forgiven for everything: things I’ve done, things I haven’t. I want everyone to hate me like I hate myself so I can at least validate it. My self-loathing was what first brought me to journalism. At last came a genre where my feelings didn’t matter. I was supposed to be impartial, and it was my subject that people cared about. I loved when people would compliment one of my articles and say, “I didn’t even realize you wrote that. I just saw your name at the end!” That’s exactly what I wanted to be: invisible.

I wrote many stories about death, interviewing friends, family, girlfriends, and roommates. I would like to think I was a good listener — earnest and honest. But those stories were, for me, stories. I spent a decent chunk of time on them, gave it my all, and moved onto something else. I never reconnected with those family members. They served their purpose. They gave me what I wanted, I took it, and we both moved on. The next day, I was writing some story about politics that two people read, and the friends and family of the dead were living with a loss too powerful for someone who is as poor a writer as me to try to put into words.

You’re confused now, I’m sure. Why are you depressed, Dan? Why have you thought about suicide? You haven’t told us why you have low self-esteem.

I don’t think I deserve to feel sorry for myself. I have a wonderful, loving family, amazing friends, and an easy life where my race and sexual orientation have never given someone reason to look at me twice or ask insulting questions. What reason do I have to be depressed? I don’t have one, I tell myself, but now I just created another reason to hate my whining self.

I’ll try to explain why I’m depressed, but I can’t give you a cinematic scene of horror or splendid moment of narrative redemption. Maybe I do portray a positive exterior on social media, but well, sometimes I’m in a positive mood. Maybe I feel confident and happy about the future because well, things occasionally look really great. But to pretend that any pristine, packaged piece of journalism can describe why I wake up crying, thinking about my own funeral.

Some people don’t have quote-unquote reasons for being sad. Their explanations are contradictory, nonlinear, uneasy to relate to. We call them selfish, ungrateful, too wrapped up in their own minds to think about how many people do care about them and love them. Even the most benevolent of news writers cannot help making the suicide of young people into a Greek tragedy — the bright, successful up-and-comer that just didn’t notice how great their life really is.

Maybe the best journalism about mental health isn’t really journalism at all. It’s just listening: a type of listening that accepts gaps, moments without clarity, and yes, contradictions.

This piece fails. I make no bones about it. You’ve learned a bit more about me, not as much if you haven’t even made it this far. But you were here with me, if just for a moment, and you felt the way I feel now, even by hearing just a segment of my story.

You listened.

The author is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.  FOR ALL LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCIES, CALL 9-11 and request a Crisis Intervention Team. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is (800) 273-8255. For more information, see our resources page.


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