Day 7: Stories ring true

Kimra McPherson

It’s been almost a year since Weinberg freshman Charles Kim took his life in his dorm room.

A year since the tears and the questions from friends and family.

A year since the outpouring of support from University Residential Life, Counseling and Psychological Services, and other Northwestern resources.

But after a year of coping and healing, the mental-health issues his death raises have come into sharper focus.

Seventeen hundred students sought help from Counseling and Psychological Services last year. Others visited therapists outside the scope of NU services. Still others suffered silently, sinking under the burdens of depression or eating disorders or anxiety without reaching out — maybe because they didn’t want the stigma, they didn’t want the help, or they didn’t know how to ask.

As students reach campus with increasingly severe problems, the highest rungs of the administration have been forced to grapple with NU’s role in treating mental illnesses.

“We have to deal with issues, but what is our longer-run responsibility?” University President Henry Bienen told Daily reporters earlier this quarter. “We’re not a clinic. We’re a university.”

But mental health touches all corners of the university. It affects the psychologists and psychiatrists who work with students each day while fighting misconceptions about their services. It affects the professors and student counselors who have been trained to recognize students and co-workers in crisis.

It affects you.

When we chose topics for the seven days of “State of Mind,” we tried to make mental-health issues hit home for as many students as possible.

I am awed by how many students came forward with their stories and were willing to talk about their darkest moments in the hopes of helping others shed the stigma of mental illness. And our reporters tried to climb inside those stories, attempting to understand complex issues and complex minds.

Only later did I see that telling others’ stories could be a way for reporters to come to terms with their own.

As I edited the series, each reporter sat beside me as I read his or her story. Often I would pause on a word or phrase or scene that seemed to capture the person or the issue with clarity and insight.

We would sit in silence for a moment, reading the line again.

And then one of us would say, “That reminds me of my sister.” Or my friend, uncle or mother.

Or myself.

Yes, I see me in these stories. I have never been diagnosed with a psychological disorder; I have never starved or cut myself; I have never been in therapy. And yet my experience is here, in these stories, on these pages. And it comes to life as I read.

It’s the moment my mother showed me the poem she’d written about a day long ago — but not long enough, never long enough — when her friend sat beside her, waiting for her to finish an entire meal. I struggled to accept that the woman in that scene was my mom, controlling her life through a war against food.

It’s every day in junior high, watching my friend reach into her lunch bag and squish her sandwich into a bologna-and-cheese-filled glob, auction off her Oreos and crackers, and drop her Capri Sun off at a neighboring table. I laughed with the rest of our friends, not yet understanding the implications of her carrot-stick diet.

It’s any number of times friends have told me they purge after meals or swallow bottles of pills or drag razors across their wrists, as I sit silently and search for the right words — any words — to offer in response.

It’s the questions that remain after they tell me their stories: Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I help? Why didn’t I know better?

After watching my mother measure out an exact serving of macaroni and cheese, after seeing my friends turn down dinner or wear long sleeves to hide their scars, I still don’t know if I know better.

Time after time I am left asking — as bad-after-school-special as it sounds — the same two questions: Are you O.K.? Can I help?

At Kim’s memorial service last December, his father looked out at 250 of his son’s friends, relatives and professors filling Jeanne Vail Chapel and said, “I only wish he realized how many were there to help him if he had just asked.”

Sometimes we — the relatives, friends, acquaintances — have to ask.

Maybe that’s all we can do: make ourselves available, show we have time to listen and are willing to help.

As I know — from my mother, friends and peers — recovery takes time and desire. Initiating a conversation with a friend in crisis might be just one step in a long, sometimes-wavering process.

But at least it’s a step.

Special-projects Editor Kimra McPherson coordinated the mental-health series and

is a Medill senior. She can be reached at

[email protected]