Stony Brook University decided to keep classes hybrid in the fall 2020 semester. September is National Suicide Awareness Prevention Month THE PEOPLE SPEAK!/FLICKR VIA CC BY 2.0

Steven Keehner is a junior majoring in journalism and history.

A few weeks ago in a Zoom class, my professor, trying to normalize the abnormal situation that is the COVID-19 world, asked an icebreaker.

“How is everyone doing?” they said.

I stated how I’m usually feeling: tired. Then came the magical response. 

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“Well, if you’re tired in week three, then you better be ready, because you’re going to have a difficult semester!”

I wanted to say, “Well, when your depression and anxiety keep you from sleeping without taking Benadryl every night, you get tired a lot.” But I didn’t.

Why would I? That’s not what normal people do, right? Right?

I speculated about that brief, 20 second interaction every day since it happened. I’m past being annoyed by the eye roll-worthy response I received.

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Rather, I thought about my lack of a response; I wasn’t going to get defensive and insult them. Why was I so hesitant to be honest?

We have reached a point where raising questions about social and/or economic issues are no longer things that will brand you as a godless communist, seeking to tear up the fabric of American society (for the most part). 

Despite this, many are still living within this facade that mental health issues equate to being weak.

This is where my problem emerges.

With any issue, sometimes we need to get directly to the point. Last month was National Suicide Awareness Prevention Month, and it seems more relevant to state this now: There is nothing wrong with having mental health problems. 

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It’s okay to not be okay. If we’re going to call for social justice and the destruction of the societal norms that hold us back, we need to accept that internal overhaul is crucial for any external changes we may seek to achieve.

Now, when talking about mental health, there comes an obvious issue: Not everyone understands it. I am not trying to limit or control discussions around mental health. But, like how an able-bodied person can’t understand the difficulties of a disabled person, someone who hasn’t struggled with mental illness may not understand the experiences of those who do.

I have long suffered from severe depression and anxiety. With therapy, medication (thanks Zoloft) and a lot of great people, I’ve turned what was an everyday reality into one that is much more episodic.

But treatment doesn’t prevent me from experiencing anxiety and depression. Sometimes sadness makes lying in bed sound so much better than anything else. I still have a pit in my stomach that makes me certain I’m disappointing my loved ones. I still experience frustration from knowing that I must live with my messed up self forever, and that nothing will ever change that.

Giving up on everything sounds so appealing sometimes — to pack up my bags and walk away from everything gives me more inner peace than I would like to admit. It can be really difficult sometimes. 

I don’t bring this up to draw sympathy; I mention it because there is always more happening behind the surface.

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For those of you who are struggling, I want to let you know that you aren’t weak or a waste of space because you feel how you do.

Instead, I want you to reclaim your pain, because only you can do it for yourself.

This doesn’t mean going outside and shouting it to the clouds; it comes down to being honest with yourself. We shouldn’t be forced to shy away from ourselves anymore.

For so many years, I ran away from my dark thoughts. I assumed that everyone did so — if I conceded, that would make me lesser than others. I thought if I chose not to suffer, then I wouldn’t.

What happened instead, was that I not only suffered more, but I hurt the people around me because they saw someone who wanted to be sad.

My other point in bringing this up is for those who don’t have these issues: We need to normalize our mental health as something we can talk about.

Speaking about mental health shouldn’t be something exclusive to those who suffer. If someone is sad for any reason, they should be able to express that without being pushed into a box labeled “weirdo.”

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As human beings capable of love and compassion, we need to be prepared to ask someone, “Are you okay?” with the willingness to accept that the answer may be “No, I’m not.”

One should have the mental and emotional skillset to listen and empathize, because giving someone the platform to speak is enough to make their day.

Though Suicide Prevention Month ended with September, we should remember the reality of suicide year round.

One of the top killers among college-aged students is suicide, and as people are socially isolating themselves due to the pandemic, many are struggling without their usual support system.

Suicide, unlike some other causes of death, is preventable. If you or a loved one seem to be struggling, do not be afraid to ask how they’re doing or reach out for help. Even if someone is doing alright, still check in with them!

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at (1-800-273-8255) for resources and solutions. For the Stony Brook community, the Counseling and Psychological Services offer free and confidential services to enrolled students.

It’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to suffer in silence. It may be dark today, but you will  never know how great life can be unless you’re here to live it.

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