The news from my old university, Bristol, is that there have been ten student suicides in the last 18 months. It must worry the university in particular, and parents everywhere.
University is a strange, pressured and complex place. One of the problems was that it was never clear if the students were to be treated as adults or children? Was the University in ‘loco parentis’, with responsibilities for caring for the large determinedly independent children? Or were they adults, fiercely free to make their own choices, in a steep and rather hazardous learning curve?
Over nearly a quarter of a century I sat on university committees where no one knew what the answer was.
And the answer mattered. One Friday evening at 5.00 pm, after a long day, a bruising week and an exhausting term, my secretary knocked on my door and said that a student had turned up without an appointment and wanted to see me. I was about to go home. Iwanted to suggest that maybe the student might give some thought to how diaries, commitments and ‘real life’ worked, perhaps making an appointment for Monday. But my secretary said, (and she was almost always right), “I think she needs to be seen-and now.”
I looked at my watch, looked at the growing queue of cars trying to get off campus, sighed reluctantly, and said “show her in.”
She came in, made herself comfortable, and stared at me. I had never seen her before. “I’m going to take my life shortly, and I needed to tell someone as part of the process of doing it, and you’re that someone” she said.
I looked carefully at her. She was sensible, not drunk, not drugged, not emotionally overwrought. I asked her to tell me more about it.
It turned out that she had suffered for some time in a sexually and physically abusive relationship. She had then been in a car crash which had left her in permanent physical pain as well. She was tired of the mental and physical pain. She had had enough.
She wouldn’t tell me her name, so that I couldn’t interfere with her plans. Having got what she had to say off her chest, she left.
The university was emptying fast, and I made some urgent phone calls. She had given me a few small snippets of information, though she was deliberately guarded and careful. I thought I might just have enough pieces of the jigsaw to come up with a name. But other people had gone home, or were going home, and getting the right person or people to answer the phone and stay to help proved very difficult. Nearly impossible.
I worked out the name with one or two kind administrators who were also willing to work late. But no one had the authority to take any action. So I pestered the police, for whom it was also Friday night. After some time and effort, a team went round, and knocked on her door, just as she was administering the fatal overdose.
She lived; and introduced me to her parents at her graduation five months later.
Her circumstances were unusual. But I would preside at so many of the funerals of many others who did succeed in killing themselves, and who had not thought to come to see me (though many did.)
Two things troubled me greatly. One was that with the expansion of universities so many children who were fragile, ill-equipped or very vulnerable, were being recruited to a social experiment they were never going to cope with, in the name of ‘equality’ and economic expansion.
The other was that they threw themselves into the quicksand of drink and drugs, some with little, others with no restraint.
And even amongst the most mentally stable and mature of us, drink and drugs mess with your head, sometimes very badly indeed, sometimes fatally. Yet the university administrators took no action about the cheap booze the place was awash with, and minimal action about the pushing of drugs. For the drug pushers it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
But as adults in wider society, we are not much better than the University administrators. Peter Hitchens has made a crusade out of writing exposing the fact that our legislators and our police don’t really believe in our drug laws. They don’t enforce them. But if they did lives would be saved and drug barons would be impoverished.
Is there a solution? It was striking when someone dubbed a particular concoction of chemicals ‘ecstasy’. But clever. We are hungry for the experience of ecstasy. It can be found in love, music, nature, and even or especially in God.
Marx called religion the ‘opiate of the people’, by which he meant, an addictive sedative that keeps the people quiet. In fact its real role is to help people find meaning, joy, purpose and exposes people to the experience of joy and delight. It has the side effect of loving and helping the neighbour, which is more constructive than killing our children.
Culturally we seem to have much more time for the chemical concoctions of ecstasy than we do for the search for any other kind. And that may be a serious mistake that some, too many, of our children pay a fatal price for.