Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Discussing Difficult (Current) Events in Class: Depression & Suicide

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We had a difficult conversation in class today. I was dreading it and worried. It went great. Here’s the back story. Plz remember I am not a psychologist so I am not truly equipped to discuss these things and it’s not strictly related to my course.

I’m going to count myself lucky that I truly have a lot of freedom over what I do in class, how we spend our time…. but also that the course focus and learning goals (which I designed and continually revise) give us room to discuss lots of current events where it makes sense… so that even when I discuss some really tangential things, I can relate them back to topics of digital literacies and empathy and equity and such.

When the New Zealand shootings of mosques happened last semester, I brought it into class and we discussed a reading on Othering/Belonging and talked about what it means to share things like that on social media and whether it might be dehumanizing… and we compared to other local violent events that get shared on social media.

Today we discuss suicide and depression. This happened because a student shared a video on our Slack team asking us if we thought it was fake news. It was just before my kid’s bedtime so she was sitting on my lap when I saw this: it was a video of the Cairo Tower observation deck. At first it is nothing, just people taking selfies and stuff. Then suddenly this guy jumps off. I’ll be honest. My kid was on my lap. I just shut it off and told her he probably jumped onto the next bulding, but it was a dangerous thing, and no one should do it.

But it was the guy committing suicide. Right there in public.

Students started talking about it on Slack. I had to get my kid in bed.

This morning, all I could think about was… I can’t ignore this in class. Students seem like they need to talk about this. But what if someone has had a loved one who committed suicide ? What if someone themselves in the room was contemplating it or had done so in the past? But also, how could I ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen? If it’s on their minds and going viral, it’s on their minds. They may need to talk. So I contacted a friend from our Center for Student Wellbeing (thanks, S!) and she recommended I listen to them and try to steer the topic to something related to class. She reassured me that that it was a myth that talking about suicide increases its incidences.

My take on this was to explain to students how this does relate to class…. and to bring up issues like what we share on social media and such, and bias/stigma against mental illness… but honestly also to just let them be emotional and thoughtful and vulnerable if they needed to be, and hope (and work hard when I needed to intervene) that no one would be offensive or offended.

So I took a deep breath and I was honest with them that I wasn’t expecting this to be easy but I couldn’t just ignore it. And omigosh they wanted to talk SO MUCH. Every now and then a student would disconnect a bit or there would be side conversations with someone close to them in the room, maybe something they couldn’t share with all, but wanted to say anyway (I wrote a few DMs on Slack to check on people during the discussion). Almost everyone had something to say, and it became hard to make sure everyone had their space to talk…. one student asked if we could stop raising hands and speaking in turn. We used to do that early in the semester, but I got feedback that some ppl didn’t get chances to speak because others kept jumping in uninterrupted. So we have been doing a hand raise thing which I then say x, y, then z will talk… and students help me keep track of who’s been wanting to talk for a while and such, and they interrupt each other much less, and more people talk, I feel. At least people who were talking less or not at all are talking a bit more.

Anyway. They all needed to talk, and they needed to talk about different things.

Among things we talked about was mental illness, stigma, supporting people and when to seek professional help and how hard it is to convince the most depressed person that they need help. We talked about responsibility of schools and universities and teachers to care for students’ wellbeing. We talked about constructive ways of dealing with this on social media and beyond. We talked about what we knew of mental illness and some misconceptions of it. We talked about whether sharing the video was ethical, whether trigger warnings are helpful, and about potential harm or benefit there might come of all this. One of the best parts of the conversation came when they mentioned the importance of availability of mental health services for people who could not afford it. Did public universities have what AUC had as a service to its students? Could psychology MA students at public universities do this for free as part of their training? I don’t know but I plan to find out.

I honestly wasn’t planning on spending the entire class session on this, but it’s what needed to happen. I asked them a few times in the middle if they were OK with it (some seemed less comfortable at certain points) but it seems that overall they felt like they needed to discuss it, that they didn’t have many outlets to discuss this.

It was, of course, a dark topic, and we moved from emotional to logical to confused to slightly angry to sad to frustrated and all sorts of things. But we also laughed a few times and it wasn’t as… I guess it didn’t feel like we were having a morbid discussion. I guess it would have been more difficult if it were someone some of us knew personally. And that’s also the nature of humans, though it is not logical that another human life has more value because you know the person. But there it is. And I guess the opportunity to discuss it with some distance now might help them if they ever need to deal with a trauma closer to them in future. Or so I hope!

I wonder what they’ll think about this discussion a week from now, a month, a year, 10 years. I know I will remember it because… you know what, no one ever had these discussions with me when I was their age.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you! Mental health and suicide overlap with every subject and every field. In the US, and I assume it’s similar many other places too, we’re still so afraid to talk about these things that it makes it too hard for people to get help when they need it. I believe they will remember it for sure, and very likely at least some of them have had suicide ideation before. Just learning how common it is can make a big difference to someone getting help.
    As someone greatly affected by this in my life I just wanted to say thanks for leaning into the discomfort. It makes a difference and I’m so happy to read this story.

  2. Good decision Maha, there’s a lot riding on NOT talking about topics like depression and suicide. Often these conversations are unrecognized opportunities that left unmet or avoided will later leave us empty or incomplete. Like missing a chance to be human or just there as a witness to someone’s deep self-questioning. The notion that we are not involved in other people’s lives is simply not true. These are conversations that help us–fill us with caring.. Sorry you had such a sudden and unexpected shock. That’s a raw experience with nothing to help you at least put the person who’s life was lost in the context of their previous difficulties.
    I think talking about these hard subjects brings up the realization that we matter in some way to each other. We are “noticed” and not alone.

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