TW.: stories of suicide
I, as well as many other volunteers with whom I have gotten in contact during my ESC had the same worries before starting our voluntary service: Will the experience in another country be worth it to "loose" one year of studying or working? Personally, I finished my Bachelor in Psychology last year and had two options. Directly continuing my studies and starting my Masters or coming to Italy to do ESC. As I am writing this article you can tell that I made my choice to go to Italy. The decision has not been easy for me though. As the majority of my fellow students started their Bachelor directly after finishing school and then procedeed to directly do their Masters I felt pressured to do the same. In our competitive society, many young people feel the same pressure, for some it also goes far beyond graduating in time. They feel like they have to pick certain degrees and have to get certain grades. During the quarantine I stumbled uppon a shocking part of the italian reality that I think is worth sharing in that context.
Nicholas T. took his own life the day before he was supposed to defend his thesis. The 23 year old told his parents that he was finished with his studies and that he would be graduating in a few months. In reality, it was all lies. He failed his engineering exam and therefore also skipped a part of his finals. Then, In the following months, he kept all of this a secret from his family for months. On July 23, when his parents were headed to see him graduate, they made a tragic discovery instead: Nicholas was dead. He had killed himself the evening prior (Strinati, 2019).
Unfortunately, Nicholas’ story does not stand alone. It has become a tragic reality in Italy for students to commit suicide on the day of their graduation. On average, three students commit suicide every year, tendency rising (Skuola, 2018), because they cannot finish university and do not have the courage to admit that in front of family and friends (Di Mattia, 2019).
The dynamics are usually the same. The student lies to their family about almost being done with their degree when in reality they have only attended a few exams or even abandoned the studies completely (Skuola, 2018). Feeling trapped in their lie, they continue to announce their graduation, inviting family and friends. Then the tragedy: They commit suicide. To escape the humiliation, because they cannot stand the emotional pressure or simply because they did not receive help in a moment of need (Di Mattia, 2019). They feel trapped between reality and expectations, ashamed, defeated, and are afraid to disappoint their family and friends (Skuola, 2018).
But where does that feeling of not being enough come from in the first place? There are mainly two sources to consider. It usually starts at a young age on a family level when the children are met with the expectations their parents have for their future lives. Then the feeling gets nourished further by our society that is so highly competitive (Di Mattia, 2019). “These children grow up being told that the will be doctors, engineers, or architects, but also virtuous musicians, skilled swimmers and sport champions. It is an unhealthy mechanism of competition that is being imposed on them and that, in the aftermath, can lead to a form of performance anxiety”, states Psychologist Dr. Fabrizi (Di Mattia, 2019). Performance anxiety is one of the most commonly reported symptoms of all social fears (Diller, 2013). People experiencing it may worry about failing a task before it has even begun. Furthermore, they might believe failure will result in humiliation or rejection (American Psychological Association, 2009). In addition to performance anxiety, this discomfort can also lead to pathologies such as depression, bipolarity, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and drug or alcohol addictions (Di Mattia, 2019).
Once a student is affected by any pathology, it is important to seek help (Di Mattia, 2019). According to the US American National Institute of Mental Health (2019) treatments and therapies can consist of brief interventions, psychotherapies, medication, or collaborative care. To prevent the pathologies from developing, it is important to value a child for their skills and abilities without imposing plans of their future on them from the start. Like this the child can build a profound self-esteem and is less likely to get into a deep crisis. Finally, it is essential to embrace a culture of failure. In order to achieve a needed change of the society we have to reject the capitalistic state of mind that the purpose of life is to be productive and successful. By being transparent about their own failing and by being generally accepting about failure, parents and role models in the society can teach young people that it is normal to fail, so that they accept defeat as an integral and constructive experience of the life path, instead of something that makes them unworthy of living. Hopefully like this, we will arrive at the day where no one will see the necessity anymore to kill themselves because of a career setback.
To conclude, I want to encourage everyone to listen to themselves and maybe take a risk in that. I did not regret my decision to take one year to explore another country even once and even parts of my family that were not very supportive in the beginning now have seen what a great experience I had and how much I learned. Especially for some of my friends who did not know what exactly they wanted to do in the future, the EVS has been a great opportunity to get to know a part of work life and to think about what comes next.
Final note: If you are in crisis or know someone who is, get in contact with your national suicide prevention lifeline. Find your country on the list on the website of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines.
American Psychological Association (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Diller, Vivian (April 12, 2013). Performance Anxiety. Psychology Today. Retireved on May 19, 2020 from www.psychologytoday.com
Di Mattia, Alina (December 31, 2019). Suicidi universitari. Una laurea può valere una vita? Il Centro. Retrieved on May 18, 2020 www.2020magazine.info
Skuola (April 10, 2018). Università dei sogni infranti: quando la laurea (mancata) porta al suicidio. La Stampa. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from www.lastampa.it
Strinati, Alessia (October 04, 2019). Studente suicida il giorno della laurea: «Mentiva ai genitori, non aveva finito gli esami». Il Messaggero. Retrieved on May 18, 2020 from www.ilmessaggero.it
The National Institute of Mental Health (July, 2019). Suicide Prevention. Retrieved on May 22, 2020 from www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention