CW: Mental Illness, Suicide
392: It’s the number of suicides the Central Statistics Office recorded for 2017 in Ireland. UCD students have probably had enough of seeing this number, on black posters plastered across campus or posted ominously on SU social media accounts – both without explanation. Student backlash against the campaign has been mounting, the general consensus is that it was ill-conceived, insensitive and even harmful to students.
UCD Students’ Union Mental Health Campaign Coordinator Sadhbh O’Flaherty has been running this mystery fuelled mental health campaign for about the last two weeks. After googling the number and being frustrated by this topic being used in a condescending game of secret keeping, the Tribune posted about the campaign on Instagram with an explanation of the number. After being asked by the SU to remove the explanation from social media, I did so and was happy to promote the number on our social media under the assumption that there would be a much larger pay off at the end. As someone who has a very personal relationship with mental illness and suicide, I subdued my cynicism and gave the campaign the benefit of the doubt. Any effort is better than no effort, right?
Last Thursday, 20 students wearing white masks and black t-shirts with the number 392 on them stood in silence for an hour on the concourse. UCDSU’s Press Release about the event stated that “a demonstration took place today on campus and UCD students stood still and silent in a line in the middle of UCD campus wearing the number 392. They did not interact, and they did not answer questions and emphasis was put on this demonstration being a respectful event.” In hindsight, the aim was apparently meant to be a silent vigil in memory of the 392 lives that were lost to suicide, but without context, it was ominous and upsetting for many students.
Having officially released the meaning behind the number on Monday, the SU has been posting a new version of the 392 tiles. The poster now reads “Reach Out if you experience invasive thoughts, Reach Out if you are worried about a friend or family member, Reach Out if you have been affected by suicide in any capacity.” Assuming that this is the ‘big reveal’ signifying the end of the campaign, it has been anticlimactic, to say the least. Students had already been expressing their criticisms and frustrations on social media, but this insufficient finale to the campaign was the last straw for many. L&H Treasurer Cora Keegan was among the many students expressing frustrations, writing an impassioned Facebook post that made some excellent points.
A Lack Of Nuance
One of Keegan’s main points is that the campaign was insufficient in portraying the many nuances to mental health, saying that the SU “need to stop boiling down issues into everyone is sad sometimes, you should call Samaritans. The reality is that’s not how mental health works in real life and many who are suffering already know these services exist. Even if this nuance comes with a lack of engagement the nuance shouldn’t be sacrificed, especially because very few people engage with the SU anyways, and most students who do pay attention to Su campaigns are already passionate about those causes or are sympathetic to them at least, so education that is deeper is much more effective.”
Mental Health Awareness campaigns are inherently difficult. They cannot be all-encompassing because people have such varying and nuanced relationships with mental health. The particular aim behind the campaign was apparently to make students aware of the number, though it’s not clear to what end. Most people in our generation are aware of the current mental health crisis and that Ireland’s suicide rate is among the highest in Europe. For a student that has somehow managed to make it to college without being affected by or educated on mental health, this campaign may have opened their eyes a bit, but for students already dealing with mental health issues, it was tired and futile.
One thing that cannot be denied is that the campaign was successful in getting people talking. Getting students to engage with the Students’ Union is difficult; it’s a tale as old as time, but this creation of this strange guessing game was not the way to deal with a sensitive subject. Lisa O’Mahony summarised this excellently in saying “the enigmatic veil of secrecy is the most unhelpful media tactic to use for an illness that is stigmatized in society and thus hidden by sufferers.” Keegan also criticised the use of mystery and what felt like ‘hype-building’ to promote engagement on such a delicate topic, “When you create an atmosphere of lightheartedness around such a jarring topic the message of how serious mental health is, is lost.”
Some students expressed their frustration at it being a statistic based campaign, focusing on one number that doesn’t incorporate any of the circumstances surrounding suicides. Statistics on topics like suicide, that are shrouded in shame and public stigma, are often imperfect. The line between drug overdoses and suicide is frequently blurred. The connection between mental illness and suicide is not ironclad: not all mental illnesses involve suicidal thoughts, not all suicides are caused by mental illness. It does not tell us if these 392 people were receiving treatment, the number of people who attempted suicide that year or that 312 of these deaths were men. In fact, the binary number removes all nuance and does exactly what the campaign claims it is trying not to do; reduce these lives to numbers. As Keegan writes in her post, “Victims of suicide are never just a number to those they leave behind and to have them used as such is upsetting and needless.”
Sometimes the imperfection in statistics needs to be overlooked for the sake of a campaign, but in this case, the message in and of itself is flawed. The negative and frankly, grim outlook of the campaign and it’s portrayal of the number 392 failed to recognise that it’s the lowest number of annual suicides the CSO has recorded this century.
‘Triggering’ And Upsetting To Students
A number of students were also upset with the prevalence of the campaign, both on campus and online, without any explanation or warning. Chloe Maguire Sedgwick commented on the Union’s Facebook posts saying that they should have included a Content Warning before posting about a topic as sensitive as suicide, “At the very least (the very, very least) you should have content warnings before any triggering content but you haven’t even managed that. I suggest you edit this post with a CW and in future campaigns consider whether you are actually helping people with the work you are doing.”
The concept of being “triggered” has been become more known in the social media age as meaning to have an intense emotional response, but through the lens of mental health “triggers” are more like the catalyst to reexperiencing symptoms. For example, for a student that deals with invasive thoughts of suicide, seeing these posters all over campus could trigger more invasive thoughts. In my opinion, it is the primary responsibility of the person to be aware of their own triggers and coping mechanisms, rather than demand the world be censored for them, but I do agree that this particular campaign was reckless, from upsetting students to potentially causing harm and stress to students with mental illnesses.
‘Reach Out’ Is A Tired Mantra
Caoimhe Gethings made an important point in the facebook comments below Keegan’s post; “The “reach out” mantra is tired and unhelpful, people have heard it a thousand times. Students need to have Something to reach out to or an incentive to reach out when they feel like they don’t deserve help. I genuinely just found the whole campaign to be distressing and upsetting and as someone who deals and has dealt with mental health issues throughout my time in UCD I felt utterly let down.”
Often people reach out and are not meet with sufficient resources. It’s a common complaint that students often have in response to Mental Health campaigns is that students don’t need campaigns, they need more resources. This complaint may be slightly unjustified in this case, as O’Flaherty’s role is purely to organise campaigns. The Health Centre has increased its resources this year, from hiring more staff, implementing a triage system and launching the SilverCloud App on campus.
Another issue that often goes unaddressed is who people choose to reach out to. Underneath they feature the numbers for Pieta House and Samaritans. The laziness of this is astonishing; Google and most social media do that automatically when someone searches suicide. Why not recommend UCD services? Yes, the waiting list for on-campus counselling is still immense, but students can get five free off-campus sessions without being put on a waiting list. Why not promote that Silvercloud App that the Health Centre launched last October? If you are feeling suicidal, you should call pieta house or the Samaritans, but you can also go directly to your GP or the doctor on campus.
Contrary to popular belief, not all mental health issues can be ‘solved’ by self-care and talking to family and friends. While the people around you are a vital support system in times of stress and are probably the best people to primarily ‘reach out’ to, if you are experiencing serious mental health issues, they should only be a stepping stone and secondary support to professional help. Furthermore, please do not be disheartened if a professional that you ‘reach out’ to does not meet your needs. One of the most difficult aspects of mental illness to contend with is that symptoms, like a persistent feeling of worthlessness, can work contrary to a person’s desire to get help.
As Keegan makes clear in her post, students with mental health issues do not need petting zoos, henna tattoos and showy, but ultimately flimsy awareness campaigns. While Mental Health Week last October did feature some interesting educational talks, it was not advertised enough to students. It’s clear that the SU needs to encourage a wider discussion of mental health issues on campus and do so in a much more practical way than simply mentioning exam stress or reaching out when worried about a friend. As for students that are much further into the process of getting help than ‘reaching out’, the Students’ Union could do a lot more in terms of recognition of a much wider range of mental illnesses, of the financial strain of therapy and psychiatric treatment and of the need for activism on a national scale on this issue.
To everyone who was upset, offended or disheartened by this campaign, please continue to reach out to the Students’ Union with your concerns about the campaign, because we deserve better.
By Muireann O’Shea – CoEditor