This week, a boy my children know from school took his own life at university. I now know a lot of dead young people and it seems to me society fails them. He is nineteen forever. In my experience alone, the number of people dying by suicide is becoming horrifically large compared to those who have died in a way nature had its own hand in.
The feeling of wishing you could somehow breathe a little differently and make the moments travel back to be able to say “Stop, I will help” is strong within all who know him and all who don’t. I think of parents, siblings, grandparents. I think of his friends, hollow at the feeling of sickness they hold inside trying not to let it spill out as they grapple to put their weighty responsibility somewhere. Anywhere. But it is theirs now. Theirs to hold forever. And they will. That particular haunting never leaves.
I have scores of thousands of words I could write on how society fails teenagers. How we so much expect them to be robust because “They’re students, if it doesn’t involve alcohol/sleeping/sex they don’t care”. They care. They really care. And they have nowhere to put that care because we give them no time to transition into what is expected of a fully functioning adult human. (And whilst we’re on that, hands up who feels fully functioning and sorted?)
They arrive into the number 18 with a large body they didn’t quite expect and not much inside it. They’re given a bow-tied Lego box of bits and no instructions. Society expects them to make it up themselves and they’re embarrassed to admit they don’t know where and how to begin. And yet they should be happy and grateful. They have their whole lives to make mistakes, they should enjoy this freedom. What worries could they possibly have? How we wish we were 18 again. (But with the knowledge we now hold.)
I challenge any fully formed adult to try living the modern university life and see how they fare. To be blunt, it’s a living hell. For starters, this way to learn is not for everybody and university is not what it was a generation and two before. You might be a baker but you find yourself channelled into studying business, thrown into an oversubscribed, under supported environment (“We stuck a phone number inside your wardrobe for when you are raped or want to kill yourself. And there is fresh air and refillable water bottles absolutely everywhere. Mostly free!”)
Strangers everywhere. “Come and meet people - it starts at 11pm and if you’re late you must knock back neat vodka and if that doesn’t go well you have to knock back two more. You don’t like that? But everybody likes that! Try it! Ok, instead you can join a group of other strangers who don’t want to be in that group but have nowhere else to be just like you!”
“What do you mean you couldn’t sleep in your 3m x 2.5m room with the strange odour (where you eat, sleep, rest, exercise, study, share time with friends and wash) and you found the 2-inch-thick lumpy mattress on the bed with the missing slat a bit uncomfortable, while the world shouted, smoked outside your window, played loud music, and delivery drivers rang the bell constantly to get somebody to answer the door?”. “What do you mean the food you bought has been eaten by others, you have a shelf of your own, take theirs!”. “The kitchens are disgusting; I don’t know how you manage but I guess nobody cooks anyway.”
The choice is tolerate or don’t. I personally know 3 students who decided they couldn’t and left within the first 5 months. And I know another 3 who are still gritting teeth to get through their first year. Society has given you the gift of university and you should be grateful. Not everybody gets to go to university. You don’t fit anymore. You don’t fit at home and you don’t fit here. Shrink to fit. Shrink to fit. Shrink to fit. Until you disappear. I’m angry. Very angry. We are failing people. And it is a legitimate business.