It was with heavy hearts that my good wife and I read Jerri Clark’s account of the life and death of her son, Calvin [“Becoming homeless in Seattle helped him find psychiatric help. His mom says it shouldn’t have taken that long,” July 25, Northwest]. The photo collage brought us to tears, for there we saw images of the first half of the life of our older child, who is currently undergoing restorative hospitalization. The second half of our child’s life has been marked by a cycle, familiar to those of us who have lived with mental illness, of psychosis, involuntary commitment, incarceration, substance abuse, eviction and homelessness. Our priority for years has been to keep our child alive and live an independent life.
Since 1999, I have taught at a university. Many of my students are international students who have been uprooted, often through no choice of their own and during the crucial years of transition from childhood to adulthood, to an alien linguistic and cultural environment. Some of these students have reported to me that they are denied needed psychiatric medication by their parents, or told by parents not to divulge their disabilities, symptoms of psychological pathology, uncertainty about gender identity, or news of a family member who has died by suicide.
And so when I received a campuswide notice some years ago from a group of graduate students engaged in a project focusing on the mental health and well-being of the students at our university, asking interested faculty to take part in a discussion and offer their views, I hastened to sign up. Arriving at the appointed building and room, I opened the door to see … two other colleagues. (As of today, the University of British Columbia employs 5,701 faculty.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, the university shortly thereafter launched a Mental Health and Wellness initiative by means of which staff and faculty campuswide were recruited as liaisons. I was fortunate to be approached by my department to serve in this role. Already by then I had taken on the role of first responder to students whom I perceived to be struggling. The symptoms were somewhat familiar — absence from class, exam anxiety, reluctance to participate in class discussion (especially pronounced among those for whom English was not a first language), inability to complete course assignments, panic attacks occasioned by bad news from family across the Pacific, anxiety among female students in response to social media sniping by classmates about their appearance.
My first response is to ask if there is anything I can do. Results have more often than not been positive. One student — who, it turned out, struggled not only with depression but with the expectations of a demanding father and a “successful” sibling — responded positively. A couple of years later I received a card from him stating he had returned to his home country, had completed a challenging internship with his father’s company, and was looking forward to getting on with his life. He told me that I had reached out to him at a time when no one else would, that I had believed in him, and … that I had saved his life.
This testimony confirmed in me a belief I have held for years, a belief in an antidote to the failure of the mental health care system, and the social services system in general, to deliver necessary and lasting resources to those most in need — the belief that each of us can make a difference in the life of another, that each of us in our role as spouse, partner, parent, mentor or professional can save a life, that by doing so each of us can help make the world a better place. With apologies to David Bowie, we can each be a hero — and not just for one day.