One More Day

The Smiles We Choose

Editor’s Note: The following piece includes discussion of severe mental health struggles and suicide. We’ve compiled a few resources that might be useful to any readers in need of help or support. Please make sure to take care of yourselves — seeking help is always worthwhile.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a toll-free hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, dial 988.

If you are enrolled, Harvard's Counseling and Mental Health Services offers no cost support, including Urgent Care appointments at (617) 495-5711.

For international students, here’s a list of some internationally available support hotlines that might be helpful.

— Guillermo S. Hava and Eleanor V. Wikstrom, Editorial Chairs


— Raquel Coronell Uribe, President

I’m drafting this piece on my phone as I lie in bed, straining to see against the rising sun’s glare. This place has amazing strawberry pancake wraps, but still, a stay in a psych ward is not the vacation I was hoping for.

That is to say, following years of depression, I tried to take my life after arriving on campus this semester. Now I’m on a medical leave of absence to recover and figure out what comes next.

I’m not pretending that I’m raising awareness about an issue no one knows about, that I’m the only one who’s experienced suicidal ideation. In fact, most of Harvard’s student body is already painfully aware, given that about 1,100 suicides occur on US college campuses each year, as many as one in three college students have depression, even more have an anxiety disorder, and, according to a 2013 study, 65 percent know someone who has either attempted or died by suicide. So I’m here to speak for myself, with the understanding that no one is alone in experiencing the impact of suicidal ideation, that my story is nothing more or less than my own.

And I am here to speak, because contrary to myth, talking about suicide does not increase the risk that others will consider it — it’s the opposite, if anything. I’m here to speak because my alternative is to be silent, and during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month at that. I won’t minimize how uncomfortable and difficult the topic is, but I hope this piece can contribute to unraveling the secrecy and fear around suicide that muffle discussion and prevent people from reaching out to get help, a systemic secrecy and fear that won’t stop at me or anyone else.

It was when my depression worsened this summer that I decided to write this column. I didn’t want to see the future. I didn’t want to continue to try. I didn’t want to die, in itself, but I wanted to stop feeling this chronic mental pain, this immobilizing sadness that exists for no reason save for the fact that I’m depressed, this heavy tightness in my chest that foreshadows an onslaught of intrusive thoughts. For me, suicidal ideation is wanting time to stop, to leave my changing life behind, to escape the cycle of existential and truly physical exhaustion that restarts at every sunrise.

But I’m still here, and I’m still depressed. And I’m going to figure out where I’m going.

“I’m fine,” is what I used to say when anyone asked me how I was doing. That was the easy answer, but not an accurate one. “I’m fine” could mean anything from “This is the best day of my life” to “I want to sleep and never wake up.” It was the easy answer, because I was ashamed and afraid of my thoughts. I blamed myself for them, and repression was easier than acknowledgment. I thought I could overcome them. I thought I was strong enough. Am I strong? That’s a separate question, and one that feeds into the stigma around suicide; because just as anyone’s bones can break, mental illness has nothing to do with strength.

It’s hard to fully describe my personal experience of suicidal depression. The nights followed by nights, the days followed by days. The days of physically moving in slow motion, watching as unfinished assignments piled up, staring at the wall because there was absolutely nothing I wanted to do, sleeping. Sleeping — most of my free time, every day, not because I was tired, but because I could escape my pain and the question of “What now?”. At the start of this semester, I often physically couldn’t pull myself out of bed to go eat in the dining hall unless a friend invited me or came to knock on my suite’s door.

I owe my friends more than I have the word count to express. It was opening up about my depression and suicidal feelings to a few people this year that most helped me to accept myself (though I also should’ve looked into therapy much sooner). “I’m fine” became “I’m okay” or “I’m not doing very well,” and “I’m good” meant exactly that. People knew the truth about how mentally ill I was, and it was okay. Some of my friends had similar experiences, and some didn’t. But the simple act of externalizing my emotions, of removing the Harvard-certified smile of effortless perfection, of showing to myself that I wasn’t faking my pain, made me realize: Through the days of feeling worthless, the nights of hoping to not wake up, I was the same person who my friends knew, who I knew. Despite everything, it was still me. And it still is.

So, what now? I’ll live until tomorrow morning. Life will change, day by day, and we’ll change with it. And in that, we’ll never be alone.

I’m suicidal, and while I’m not yet glad that I’m still here, I want to live, to live and learn. I’m already doing slightly better, in a gradual process of recovery and healing after getting help. Yet I still can’t fully restart the flow of time in my detached perspective of the world. It’s not my fault, or because I’m broken or weak, or however else internalized stigma has led me to criticize myself. I don’t disparage myself for my physical disability, and I won’t disparage myself for my mental illness either. I’ll change, recover, and move on from this endless, cycling present, accepting all of myself as I am.

One more day.

And once I do, I hope to smile. Not a smile of perfection that masks who I am in secrecy and fear, but a smile that says, “The sun is rising over my bed again, and morning is starting without me, and I’m not fine; but though the pain remains, and though it may be hard, I’ll carry on.”

One more day.

Ben T. Elwy ’23 lives in Quincy House. Their column, “The Smiles We Choose,” appears on alternating Thursdays.

Editor’s Note: Readers should note that online commenting has been disabled for this piece.