by Su Yeon Lee
In the summer of 2010, when we were midway through the doctoral program in mental health, my brilliant, creative and soft-spoken friend took her own life.
Initially, there was a lot of guilt among those of us in the Department of Mental Health who knew her. We were psychiatrists, professionals trained in suicide prevention as well as fellow students and friends. We felt a special guilt that it happened here, among us. That we, of all people, didn’t detect warning signs and couldn’t prevent this tragedy.
I think D (as I’ll call her) was really good at not revealing this part of herself. She was a Fulbright Scholar who had studied at the top university in Pakistan; I’m certain she was aware of her own condition. After her death, I learned that she had sought treatment for bipolar disorder.
As two of just a handful of students in the same doctoral cohort, we became close after we met in 2008. We’d walk from classes together and talk about assignments. She would invite me over for a cup of tea, and we would talk. She was close to her mom and brother, but they were very far away. She was quiet but had a really good sense of humor. She also cared very deeply about injustice in the world—especially about women and people with mental disorders in her native Pakistan.
D was a perfectionist. She kept track of so many details that I often missed. She worked very hard and didn’t do much to reward herself. After that busy first term was over, I stopped by her room and suggested we go shopping or do something to celebrate. It was a bright and breezy day, perfect for a stroll around the Inner Harbor. She declined, saying something about having to prepare for the next term.
There were times when I’d ask her to wait so we could walk together back from class and she’d just disappear. But that didn’t seem unusual in a high-pressure academic setting where everyone is so busy, so overwhelmed.
In the spring of 2010, I left for New York for an internship. We kept in touch by email. I remember wishing her well with her comprehensive exam, telling her, “You’re almost done!” and that I was looking forward to seeing her after her exam and before she flew to Pakistan. She wrote me back two days before she died and said, “I hope to see you MAYBE in NY.” She also wrote: “Home is calling.”
Two days later, I got an email about her sudden passing. It shattered my world. I couldn’t contain the sadness in me.
How do I translate this experience professionally and personally? What do I do with D’s death? As a budding researcher, I struggle a lot with that.
We live in a fast-paced world. We don’t pause long enough to think through the value of each person and the consequences of death in our lives. It’s not cocktail party conversation, but perhaps we are supposed to stop and consider death a part of our lives instead of trying so hard to avoid it.
We need to focus as much on community building in work and school as we do on goals and outcomes. We need to establish a nourishing camaraderie with colleagues instead of letting competitiveness and individualism rule over us.
D is not the only one to feel isolated.
Since her death, I’ve been determined not to just fit myself in the frame of the “good” researcher—it’s not good to forget how precious a person in front of me is. I want to intentionally bring out my personal side, intentionally be more informal and intentionally reach out to people. I’ll always try to do my best work and seek excellence, but when it comes to doing life, it’s more like, “Hey! How are you doing?”
That takes more time. But it’s so worth our time.
Su Yeon Lee, PhD ’12, is an associate in Mental Health and a policy analyst at the Office for Research on Disparities and Global Mental Health, National Institute of Mental Health.
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