I thought of one of my best friends as the nicest, happiest person I knew. In the time that I had known them, they were always quick to smile at someone, laugh at people’s jokes, or comfort others when they were in a rough patch. I admired them greatly for that. But something shifted in them from seventh to eighth grade, though I didn’t realize it right away. Their vocabulary changed like everyone else’s did, but there was a realness, a sadness, in the way they spoke.
Hearing them joke about wanting to end their life put a lot of things into perspective for me. I began to notice again when people made these kinds of jokes. I kept a tally in my head of every time “suicide,” “depression,” or “anxiety” was mentioned in a conversation. At a particularly bad spot in the middle of the year, it seemed like, with anyone I talked to, it was every other sentence. I tried to mention it to my friends, but they would only stop for a day or two before falling back in line with everyone else. I was worried for my friends, worried for everyone. My personal experience with mental illness made me wonder if this was how everyone else coped with it, or if they were lying and making a joke out of the whole thing.
I didn’t know which was worse.
In the eighth grade, a lot of people change. Someone finds a new style, or new friends, or goes through something they’ve never gone through before. So when I walked through the halls of the middle school, listening for teasing laughs or the snap of locker doors, I didn’t think much about how those sounds were now mixed with silent voices calling for help. People change, after all.
Anxiety and depression haven’t been covered much in my school experience—at least not as much as race or gender. I started to think that people must not really be that affected by their mental health. I ignored the casual comments of “kill yourself” and “I’m so depressed” from people that I thought I knew, and I ignored when I started saying them too. Death became such a normal part of our vocabulary that it almost seemed fake. I couldn’t even piece out the suicide jokes from a conversation anymore; everything blended seamlessly together. It seemed to be a necessary factor in how we communicated. I only wish I had caught on earlier in the year.
One afternoon I was sitting in meeting for worship when I found myself thinking about the situation again. I had never spoken in meeting before, but I rose on shaky legs and spoke my mind. I said that it was scary to watch this. That I felt horrible when I laughed at my best friend saying they wanted to die. That I didn’t expect a huge change, but I wanted to put things into perspective.
People, mostly teachers, came up to me after meeting to mention what I said, but I didn’t really feel like talking about it anymore. After that it felt like when I walked down the hall, people just lowered their voices. I didn’t feel as though anything had changed; I felt like everyone had just stopped talking about it around me. I was the killjoy.
If I remember correctly, I started PMA in the spring. PMA stands for Positive Mental Attitude, something I found myself explaining a lot as I went around to all of my friends to ask if they would be interested in joining a club like that. When the club finally got approved, I was incredibly happy. I really thought this was my chance to see some change, if only in a few people. However, the only people that came were my close friends. I couldn’t help but feel like they were there to support me and not the cause. Nevertheless, I was grateful that anyone came at all, and I gave it my all. I spoke with the counselor about it, and they gave me some tips on how to tackle certain topics.
I started with language, since that’s what first sparked the idea. The feedback from this discussion overjoyed me; I could really see change. I saw members of my club avoiding the use of harmful language and advising others to do the same. It definitely made some people uncomfortable—there were always slip-ups, but I could see the effort that was being put into it. I felt extremely proud of everyone involved, and I still do.
Though, as time went on, it felt like the club lost its true meaning. We would take up entire sessions just talking about our days or gossiping. I didn’t want to be too controlling, so I just let the meetings drift off sometimes. I figured that if this is what helps people during the day, just coming here and decompressing, that’s all right. It hurt a little bit more when the meetings would take a dark turn, and people would talk about how bad everything was going for them, but I still didn’t want to restrict anyone’s feelings. I saw people slipping back into old habits—saying that a test gave them depression, then realizing what they said and shooting me an apologetic look. I felt just like I did before I started the club—that people were changing their language for me and not themselves.
PMA faded, lost to somewhere people would come on Thursdays to hang out. Still, I didn’t mind it all that much, but maybe I should have. About a month ago, I made a suicide joke, and I noticed it right away. Memories from eighth grade rushed through my head, and I felt incredibly guilty, but I couldn’t find it in me to stop. I knew I was hurting people, and I knew I was hurting myself. If my club hadn’t even made that big of an impact on me, how could it have had an impact on others? I’m still trying to figure out what I could’ve done to improve my attempt, or if I should try again. I suppose, right now, I’m just trying to make sure that I have a PMA before trying to change anyone else’s.