The Blog


Are We Oblivious to Suicide on Campus?

Foreword: With Dean Valentini urging Columbia students to talk to Columbia Counselling and Psychological Services, I wonder if Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen had tried these services. Has anyone? We essentially seem to be unequipped to deal with catastrophes like this. This article is mainly written not to give the best solution, but to ask for solutions. What can we do better to prevent things like this from happening again? What improvements can be made?

Today I received an email from Dean James Valentini about the apparent suicide of an exchange student at Columbia College from Waseda University in Japan. It is not the first time since my first year in Columbia that I received an email like this.

But that is not the scariest part. It is not the death that is happening so close to us that we fear, but the oblivious bystanders.

The oblivion of this world.

My first reaction to the email is: if it happened yesterday, why is no one talking about it today?

Death at this moment has become a private matter. Only a small group of people are suffering in an unknown corner of this world, while the vast majority don’t even seem to care.

This earth, without her, keeps spinning around its axis.

No one knows that she took her own life that day. If not for the email, I even would not know anything about it. Even people living in the same floor with her may not have a clue. Right now, I am sitting in the Columbia Writing Center, and people around me seem to mind their own business, jumping and rushing around to fix their essays to get an A in the class.

But at the same time, someone, someone that I might have passed by every single day on campus on my way to University Writing, gave up her life.

The parallel is striking. The same road we choose to cross every single day may lead to a drastically different ending.

I talked to several friends about the news, but all I got are just oblivious, brush-it-off, I-don’t-know-what-to-say answers. The conversations quickly die off or move on to another topic.

Is it just me? Or is the world is so used to catastrophe and death that no one seems to care anymore? Or is it only my world that is so full of translucent fragile bubbles that when death tumbles on its feet near me, it is so easily crashed.

For those who are so used to seeing death, their world must be made from cotton, muffling their ears so well that they can easily move back to their original tracks when death missed them merely.

Yeah, my next-door neighbor killed herself, but I have a midterm tomorrow.

I don’t really know her. I need to study.

It is so curious how the world deals with the death of a stranger, as it happens so often.

On this campus that breaths of liveliness and ambition, it also buries lives. Very often.

But what role do we play in this ridiculous game of life, in an event like this?

We bear witness. For the deceased lives.

Is death or suicide still meaningful if no one knows about it?

If no one knows me in this world, is my life still meaningful?

Do we live for ourselves or for people who know us?

Do you still choose life over death adamantly if no one cares about you in this world?

If you live in agony and solitude, do you choose to live?

Or would you choose death, even when you are surrounded by people who love you deeply?

I have to end my writing process also at this moment because my appointment is up for discussing the paper due tomorrow.

I also have to throw myself entirely into another conversation because there are things that I have to prioritize as well.

I talked to my parents and my friends, but all of their responses reveal the inertness and the powerless of words when facing the topic of death.

When death merely missed us, the mixed feeling of regret, relief, fear, anger, grief, sorrow cannot be concluded by a simple word.

Many people choose to ignore that feeling because it happens every second. 1.8 people die every second, to be exact. By the time you finished reading this sentence, 4 people have died.

Th human mind seems incapable to deal with the fact that the world is dying every half second.

Just like no one can celebrate every birth of a new born child, no one can grieve for every death that is happening around the world.

We simply don’t have enough joy and sorrow for strangers.

Our emotion seems reserved and ephemeral at this moment. Reserved because of the emotional distance between the person and us. Ephemeral because of the limited time.

Are we oblivious? Or do we simply save it for people we care?

We approach the topic of death with caution. Isn’t it because that we are afraid that we will spread too thin in the face of catastrophe?

The world keeps spinning not because it is okay without her, but because MY world is okay without her.

We all have limited emotion reserve. I am really sorry that I cannot share a piece of my pie with you. I am truly sorry.

But at the same time, in the deep corner of our heart, don’t we feel a little lucky that we don’t know her at all?

Because of the strangeness, we can tip-toe dancing around her death, wasting the life that she no longer had.

We are innocent from the news, so we don’t know what happened, so we don’t care, so we are oblivious.

But can we keep pretending when Columbia sends us an email to let us be informed?

Do we have the right to choose to be uninformed when death comes near? I guess, we can always choose to distance ourselves from death. We can choose oblivion.

But, can we?

Should we?

I have to move on, eventually.

I am the bystander who chooses to bear witness.

I can choose oblivion, but somebody cannot. They have to wait for time to heal their wounds.

I fear the oblivion, but I understand it. Because in this world, every single second, there are someone who is overjoyed for life, and someone who suffers from it.

These two things happen everywhere at the same time.

They can be 100,000 miles, or the thickness of a wooden door from each other.

She laughs, I cry.

He cries, you laugh.

We begin to understand this world. We begin to understand the double-sided nature of joy and sorrow. We begin to understand ourselves.

We start to know life, a little by little.

At the same time, the frat parties are still on tonight next door to the campus.

If you need to reach out to someone regarding mental health, these resources are at your disposal:

Comments ( 1 )
  • Christopher Pokarier says:

    Thank you for the most thoughtful reflections. Mia Chen was my teaching assistant last year at Waseda U., a wonderful personality and intellect and I have only just learnt belatedly of her tragic death while on exchange at Columbia U. I found your article in an inevitably hopeless search for an understanding of Mia’s passing. Your considered post is very touching, and Mia would have been impressed by your sensibility.

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