Speaker emphasizes importance of mental health awareness
Jordan Burnham did not know why he was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to IVs and monitors with steel rods in his leg, his wrist in a cast and a feeding tube down his throat. For days, his family and doctors did not tell him that he had attempted suicide by jumping from his ninth-story window after years of suffering from depression.
“One out of four college students will suffer from a mental health disorder in a given year, but a lot of them don’t seek help,” Burnham said. “Now we talk about those issues and you go to seek treatment.”
Before an audience at the College of William and Mary, Burnham sat on the edge of his seat on stage talking about his struggle.
“I knew I had thoughts of not wanting to be here, what life would be like for other people if I just wasn’t here, but I never thought I would go through with those emotions,” Burnham said. “Nineteen percent of young adults contemplate suicide in a given year, but the ones with depression are five times more likely to go through with it. I never thought I would be a part of that statistic.”
Burnham’s depression began at a young age after he had to move and change schools several times and had difficulty adjusting. His older sister — his best friend and closest confidante — went away to college and left him without anyone to talk to. After an emotional outburst at his father, Burnham was sent to see a therapist and was diagnosed with depression at age 16.
“I didn’t tell anyone I was diagnosed with depression,” Burnham said. “I figured … I’ll be considered weak for going to see a therapist, for taking medicine … I never wanted to use depression as an excuse, so I didn’t take it seriously. I would BS my way through therapy sessions; I wasn’t being completely honest.”
Even though Burnham made friends and became popular among his classmates, he continued to suffer from depression. As Dr. Felicia Brown-Anderson of the College counseling center noted, many people seem fine externally while battling depression.
“Burnham made a good point … there is ‘being depressed’ and there is ‘having depression,’” Brown-Anderson said in an email. “Just because W&M students … are fortunate enough to attend college does not mean that they are free of mental health concerns. People in general carry ‘baggage’ with them whoever they are and wherever they may go.”
In his junior year of high school, Burnham found himself under pressure to succeed academically and athletically. At one point he locked himself in his room and called his girlfriend to tell her that he was contemplating suicide using a bottle of pills, causing him to be sent to a mental hospital. Burnham felt that his problems were nothing compared to those of the other patients, many of them in even more dire circumstances.
“The therapist … explained to me that it’s not the situation; it’s not the event, but how you perceive it, and it’s how you handle it,” Burnham said. “The most important lesson being in that mental hospital that I learned was that we can never choose the bad things that happen to us, but we can choose how we cope with them. And that’s still something I keep with me to this day.”
But when Burnham returned to high school, the depression remained with him. The breaking point came when his parents confronted him with a bag full of alcohol they found in his car.
“I remember everything else about that day … but for some reason going out that window, I just don’t remember,” Burnham said. “It was an impulsive act, meaning I didn’t plan it, I didn’t write a letter or a note. But when my dad dropped that duffle bag full of alcohol, it was a trigger in my brain saying, ‘I don’t belong here anymore.’”
Given just 24 hours to live by doctors when he arrived at the hospital, Burnham awoke from a coma after five days. The following month a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer heard about his story and Burnham agreed to an interview.
“I said yes, because here I am … I can’t talk, I can’t move, I have no promise of ever even getting out of the hospital bed,” Burnham said. “By literally spelling out every word of that interview, my hope was that people on the outside of the hospital could touch the words I don’t have the voice to say, so that … whoever hears about this story is never in the position that I’m at right now.”
The story resulted in an outpouring of support from well-wishers and people with similar mental health conditions. In the five years since the story was published, Burnham has shared his story with people across the country. The College counseling center worked with the campus chapter of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy and education network, to bring Burnham to the College.
“I think that mental health is a bigger issue on campus and it’s getting a lot more light,” Ashlea Morgan ’13, president of the College’s chapter of Active Minds, said. “People are genuinely getting more passionate about it. … I hear people who just come to every meeting now, they’re finding out what we’re doing next … they’re bringing their ideas, so I think that we have seen some growth in new ways.”
During the question-and-answer session following the presentation, several audience members asked what they could do to help friends or classmates struggling with mental health issues.
“What you can do is point them in the right direction so that they can get help and they can feel more comfortable going for help,” Burnham said. “Offer to go with them to the counseling office, say, ‘I’ll take you, I’ll walk with you, I’ll sit in with you’ … that is the most important thing, is someone feeling like they have support and knowing they’re not alone with their struggle.”
Burnham stressed that it is both normal and healthy to talk with others about the things that eat away at our well-being.
“What’s good about being able to tell people that you’re diagnosed with any mental health disorder is that it allows you to accept it yourself, because that’s the hardest person to accept that you’re diagnosed, is yourself a lot of times. … Being able to tell someone else probably would’ve made it more comfortable — that I wasn’t alone.”