Fading scars: A story of mental health and suicide awareness on a Christian campus

She began self-injuring when she was 10 years old. She suffers from the effects of complex trauma and is diagnosed with major depressive disorder. She has dealt with the issue of suicide throughout her struggles with depression.

But she said she is much more than her scars.

“I want [everyone] to see someone who is strong and someone who is brave for letting them see [my scars] at all,” she said.

According to figures provided by the Lee University Counseling Center (LUCC), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Furthermore, it is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, and the second for college students.

World Suicide Prevention Day is observed on Sept. 10 each year as a way to raise awareness on the issue and provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicide.

David Quagliana, the director at the LUCC, said that the LUCC frequently deals with issues of suicide, whether through crisis situations or with ongoing clients.

“It is something people should not be ashamed of and take seriously enough to seek assistance,” Quagliana said. “We want people to take it seriously enough that if they see something that might look like suicidality in someone else, to be able and willing to ask directly.”

For this Lee student, when she first came to Lee her freshman year, she said she came from a church tradition that caused her to believe that she did not need help with her mental illness.

“I came into Lee thinking I had it all together and � that I didn't need mental help � and I didn't need counseling,” she said. “I was prideful and I had very much a strong opinion against counseling, that it was worthless and couldn't do anything.”

She said she held this opinion due to her bad previous experiences with counseling.

“I had been tricked into going into counseling before,” she said. “I've had [them] tell me [my illness is] my fault.”

Yet throughout her freshmen year, she said that due to various factors, she continued her lifestyle of self-injury and was exhibiting clinical depression symptoms, such as hypersomnia, loss of appetite and hopelessness.

“There were several instances that year and I would have lows where I would sit with a bottle of pills in my dorm room for six hours and just try not to take them,” she said.

While she was attending a church during this time in Chattanooga, she said that once they discovered she was suicidal; they went into “power save mode.”

“They came to Lee to check on me, crossing a lot of boundaries, forcing themselves into my dorm room to make sure I was alive without me being in crisis,” she said. “Later after I got the help I needed and was stable, they made me step down [from the worship team] because I was on medication and they didn't think that as a Christian I should be leading other people while being medicated for a mental illness.”

She said that she was told that there was no such thing as clinical depression.

“[It was] just a lot of backwards thinking in this particular Christian community concerning what I was going through at that time, which really distanced me from God and was really damaging to me my freshmen year,” she said.

Quagliana said that sometimes within certain pockets of Christian culture, there can persist a belief that one must work everything out on their own instead of in community.

“There is this perfectionistic, image conscious standard that can exist-though doesn't always exist for everyone-that really flies in the face of what I understand to be true about Christianity,” Quagliana said. “I think there is a fear that we are not supposed to [be vulnerable], whether it implies that I am crazy, or weak, or I don't have a strong enough relationship with God � and I think there is a misinterpretation of the expectations that scripture has for us and the judgment we place on ourselves that I don't think God has for us � There is a fear of being genuine in that way with our struggles.”

Even though she sought help at the counseling center and began taking the medication she needed, this hurt carried with her into last spring semester, where she felt like she did not have anywhere to turn to outside of counseling.

It culminated with a prolonged depressive episode triggered by the loss of her grandmother the previous year and her medication being off. She began feeling like nothing was ever going to be better, and that all she was were her scars.

“I got back into a lifestyle of self injury and�that was very much mingled with thoughts of suicide, which had been a theme throughout my struggles with depression�[yet] never to this intensity before,” she said.

This depressive episode caused her to end up in the hospital for four days for safety reasons, though she had not attempted suicide at this point.

“A month later, I had a self injury incident that escalated into a suicide attempt, which-thank God-I called someone and did not go all the way through with it before I cut too deep,” she said. “I was terrified that I would be viewed differently because of the ways [some] see depression and self-injury.”

She said that she assumed all Christians would view her struggle the same way the church from her freshmen year did.

“Because of the way these people saw suicide and the way they saw self injury, I assumed � that [everyone] would see me as not good enough, as a bad Christian, or I should have prayed through it,” she said.

Yet through counseling and the support of friends, professors and mentors in her life who would not give up on her, she was able to work through a lot of this mentality.

“In actuality, it is a physical ailment that I have, as well as 20 years of trauma that takes longer than an altar call to overcome,” she said. “I do believe that God can instantaneously heal people and free them, but there is a reason that counseling exists.”

She said that even though she can be freed from her situation, she would still have the residual effects of her experiences.

“You don't literally forget what has happened to you,” she said. “You have to work through it to figure out what those situations mean, and figure out what behaviors have been affected by the trauma you have experienced � I can be unburdened by something and still be affected by it.”

She said that after this event, there were people who were very supportive of her, yet there were also those who were “disrespectful and rude about it.”

“There are people who stare at my scars overtly and won't look me in the eyes when they talk to me,” she said. “People, who I see they look at my scars and then whisper to someone � This happens pretty frequently on Lee's campus.”

When people see her scars, she said that instead of them seeing the pain, she would rather people see how her scars show that she has overcome and is strong.

“The things that I want to personally see in them are the fact that they are healed,” she said. “It means that healing has taken place and is taking place. The fact that they fade and � that everyday I get further away from the time when they had control over me.”

Though she is five and a half months free of self-injury, she said that not every day is easy, and some days are more difficult than others.

“But at the end of the day, the things that I have learned from the counseling center, the tools that they have given me, the care, the spiritual encouragement� the intentionality that they have showed me � has been extremely beneficial in transforming the way that I see people and the way that I see relationships,” she said.

She said she encourages anyone in need of help to go to the LUCC right away.

“Let true Christian men and women show you what true care can be and what true wellness looks like,” she said. “It's hard � [but] counseling is the hardest and best thing I do during the week.

Brittany Gates, a staff counselor at the LUCC, said that raising awareness about suicide and mental health begins with a conversation.

“Silence is isolating and often affirms the belief people facing these struggles carry that says �I am alone' or �There is something wrong with me,” Gates said. “Conversation and openness about these topics can sometimes be the very thing that offers someone a glimpse of hope and the ability to grasp that maybe �I'm not alone after all.'”

Quagliana said that one of the biggest problems they deal with is personal fear and resistance to being self aware about the issue and being nonjudgmental enough to seek assistance.

“When it comes specifically to suicide, I think the fear-and I don't think it is necessarily just on a Christian campus-but just in general, there is that fear of how are others going to react,” Quagliana said. “Whether it's the judgment, or the fear of overreaction.”

Quagliana said there is a myth about how talking about the issue with someone will make the situation worse.

“All the research shows that that is just not true,” Quagliana said. “Really, the goal is genuine and accurate understanding of actual care, rather than advice giving or problem solving or judgment � to balance that with knowing the limits of your role and how much assistance can you give that person.”

Quagliana said that if anyone is dealing with suicidal thoughts or actions, that they should talk with someone at the LUCC, or crisis response team immediately.

“Don't wait for an intake time to tell us that you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, give us a phone call, or walk over,” Quagliana said. “Everyone encounters issues for which they need to seek help from God and others. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to acknowledge both the existence of the issues and the need for help.”

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