Talking About Suicide

Talking with Jack Park


Like a growing number of young attempt survivors, Jack Park came out on social media, amplified by Facebook. His response to a pair of suicides among his University of Pennsylvania classmates inspired him to talk openly about his own experience. His post, and students’ responses, quickly turned into national news.

Now he spends quite a bit of time meeting with other students, old and new friends, over coffee to talk about personal struggles. “I don’t even like coffee,” the South Korean-born Park says. “But when people talk, they usually talk over coffee in Western culture.” He makes it work.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Jack Park, and I’m from Seoul, Korea, but I came to the States for an undergraduate education. I applied to the University of Pennsylvania as an early decision applicant and, fortunately, I was one of the students who got in, and now it’s my third year in Philadelphia. I am majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Consumer Psychology, a mix of marketing and psychology. And, um, what else should I say about myself? Oh, I go to a campus church called GCC, Grace Covenant Church. I look forward to Sundays because going to church is fun and relaxing, and I learn a lot about life in church because, you know, they talk about the Bible. People usually look for answers when reading the Bible. I got a lot of my personal questions answered when I looked into the Bible intensively. That’s the spiritual side of me. I also like to nap, like, a lot.

I’m from Korea, and I think South Korea is equally, if not more than, depressed than America. There’s this river called the Han River, and there are lots of bridges that connect the south and the north of Seoul. One bridge is nicknamed the “Suicide Bridge.” Try Googling “suicide bridge Korea.” Now it’s being rebranded as a “Bridge of Life” to prevent suicides.

My country is mainly results-oriented, basically a strong “do or die” kind of mentality. Intense, highly motivated people. That’s good for some part, because Korea used to be in complete ashes after World War II. Our peninsula was, and still is, divided. The war destroyed everything in the nation. But in a couple decades, we were able to improve the economy with a hard-working, much-driven mentality producing Hyundai Elantras and Samsung Galaxies. The Korean society values success, like all societies. But success is closely defined as “hard-working, being stressed and busy.” It tells you you’re doing something.

Because I fortunately got accepted into an “East Coast elite institution,” I set some standards for myself unconsciously. Basically, the University of Pennsylvania is a group of very competitive, intellectual young people, like many other institutions. It doesn’t mean that Penn kids are a bunch of assholes, some are, but definitely not all students. They have high standards for themselves. They have to get certain “prestigious” internships, or want a 4.0 GPA to get into that law school, med school, dental school, grad school, onwards. I’m easily influenced by my surroundings, and everybody seemed like they knew what they were doing with their lives.

I, on the other hand, wandered around clueless for a long time. The early 20s is a confusing time for anybody, right? I didn’t even know what major I was going to declare, what to do during summer, I hadn’t found a job yet either. Lots of confusion. Then on the side, on the media there was lots of horrible news every day: rape and murder, planes crashing, shootings, you name it, all kinds of evil. I tried to think it through myself: I’m in this safe university bubble, protected from these dangers of other parts of society, but what did I do to deserve it, why do others have to suffer while I stay in my college life?

The University of Pennsylvania is located right next to a low-income neighborhood called West Philadelphia. The gentrification process is sometimes called “Penntrification.” I see homelessness, a side of structural poverty, every day while walking to class. That just didn’t seem fair at all. So these thoughts were happening every moment, as a growing train of thoughts, “Why is the world so unfair? And why do I and others have to be stressed all the time?” Then winter break happened, my freshman year, and I
went back to Korea to see my family. And I thought things were going to be a little better because I was off school.

But when I got back to Korea, the same things were happening in Korea as well. There always has been human greed and folly everywhere: rape, murder, suicide, poverty, corruption, homelessness, everything. The same damn thing. It got me thinking, “The world sucks. Why am I even contributing to this world?” Say I bought, like, a pair of UNIQLO jeans. To make that, a child laborer from a third world nation probably had to work unhealthy hours to make it for a cheap price. I’m ignorant enough of those global issues so I just buy the pants off the shelves. That was my sense of negativity all the time, for like a couple of months. Then I went back to Penn. Slowly, I didn’t want to contribute to this world anymore.

I saw absolutely no purpose in living. “What if I make a lot of money when I graduate? I’m just taking someone else’s money and profiting off another’s loss and misery in this zero-sum economy.”

I started to feel lonely all the time because of a depressive disorder, and even if I was with a group of friends, I felt as if no one was really, truly understanding me. And I started to eat by myself, then I started to not meet any people, then I started not to go to classes, because I thought everyone was judging me all the time. I couldn’t even pick clothes out of the closet because I thought people would look at me funny.

Suicidal thoughts slowly triggered, and they wouldn’t leave. All sorts of very dangerous thoughts occurred. Eventually, over time they took over me, and the suicidal side of me told me what to do. I started to try out some of the thoughts. I honestly think I was going to die that one day, but a true miracle happened for me. I started to resuscitate again all of a sudden. I started to live again. If not for that, I wouldn’t be talking to you on this interview.

Recently, a school television station interviewed me talking about how I was able to recover from depression slowly and start to love again. Please give it a viewing if you want to see me talking about my story here.

My depressive episode seemed as if it was never going to end, but it started to fade out after about three months. I can never thank my parents, friends, family and God enough. I started to go outside, eat outside, meet my friends, started to go to a bar. And then I’m pretty sure I had a manic episode after that. I’m pretty sure I also had bipolar tendencies. I was doing insane, abnormal stuff for a good two months. I was fitting into every single characteristic of a manic episode defined by the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I was spending lots of money, feeling extra sexual arousal, meeting many women, drinking and smoking like crazy, wanting to start businesses all the time, risk-seeking, talking fast, thinking fast, being mean to my friends, saying arrogant stuff. My personality, essentially, changed.

Over time, I started to say to myself, “Wow, I’m going crazy again, but the other way. Maybe I should do something about this.” I started researching on the computer, and I talked to my therapist. She gave me some mood stabilizers. I tried to talk at a normal pace and calm my life down. Then after some weeks the therapist said, “I think you can go back to school now. You’re OK.” I said, “Jesus, thank you.”

I’ve been doing normal college student things since my return: going to some classes, skipping some classes, handing in assignments, doing some extracurricular activities. Then in Penn, as many know, this past winter was a very depressing winter. Three known cases of student suicides were reported at Penn.

I saw the clear problem and wanted to so something about it. I know how horrible that struggle is, and I didn’t want anyone to go through the same stuff. I started to pray, because I pray for answers as a Christian: “What should I do, God?” I prayed for around two weeks. Then something just kind of felt like I should share my story with other people. I saw the TED Talk, too, the guy from New York who jumped off the bridge and lived. I’m looking at it: “Oh my gosh, so powerful. That’s awesome. Should I try doing the same? No, that’s too much for me.” And then, after that moment, the TED video moment, I kind of, well, read the Bible.

In Mark 5:19, it’s basically about a person with a “demon” who goes to Jesus, and Jesus cures that person. I thought that was like me, with the demon being mental illnesses. He tried to follow Jesus around, but Jesus told him, “No, go back, tell your family and friends what I did to you.” It’s telling Christians to share their testimonies, share the love, you know. So I was like, hmm, the Bible may be … telling me to share my story.

Nobody knew this. My parents knew, but my own little brother in high school didn’t, my dear girlfriend didn’t. How could I tell this to anyone? Like in a dinner conversation, “Oh, by the way, two years ago I tried to kill myself.” What? Beside my parents and my therapy counselor, nobody knew. It was like a dark chapter of my past, and I was trying to forget about it.

But now my path was chosen. I’ll share this story in an impactful way. How should I do this? I thought writing it down would be a good start. I drafted a blog post for three days. I tried to make it as least suicidal and most emotion- and thought-provoking as possible. And I had some good writer friends thankfully edit it for me. Some friends wanted to post it on a mental health Tumblr blog, and I was like, “Please do!”

The blog was up, and then I started to share it a lot on Facebook, because almost all college students Facebook. There are around 10,000 undergrads, and I estimated approximately people have around 100 friends on Facebook. So I thought if I asked around 100 friends to share it on their Facebook wall, then the information will start to spread like wildfire. So the Penn undergraduate body will be exposed to my darkest secret, and they will know that sharing personal weakness is actually somewhat acceptable.

And they will, like, talk it out, talk about mental health with each other, you know. For around five hours, I Facebooked religiously, responding to every notification as they appeared. Around 100 friends thankfully shared on their wall.

After that, there was a lot of school media and then USA Today, and then The Huffington Post. And then Philadelphia magazine. There’s also this magazine called the Ivy League Christian Observer, and they wanted to share my story because it’s very hopeful and spiritual. So I shared my story with them as well. Meanwhile, I’m meeting, like, a lot of old and new friends over coffee about personal struggles. I don’t even like coffee. But when people talk, they usually talk over coffee in Western culture. So I chose the theme of coffee. Yeah.

Lots of people have been sharing their stories to me: “Oh. I’m depressed, too.” “Oh, you’re bipolar? Oh, me too!” I realized it’s a relatively common condition. Nowadays I’m trying to catch up on my schoolwork. I’m very behind, like, a lot.

Have all the reactions been good?

I think so? No one has directly said bad things to my face. But I heard some rumors. There will always be haters, whatever you do. By chance, I became somewhat of a public figure on campus. A few people recognize me in campus buildings and stuff. Some people got jealous. They would say something like, “Oh did you make all this up to become famous?” No, why the hell would I make this up. Some stuff like that, but that’s a real minority of responses. The majority responses were like, “Thank you for what you’re doing. Maybe we should have coffee together. I tried to harm myself a few years ago, too, but now I’m doing better.”

Do you think it’s easier for younger people to come out?

I’m not sure, because I’m not a very representative sample with a small sample size of one. I think it’s hard for anybody, college students, working professionals, or anybody really. This is not a common topic to talk about anywhere, but these days it’s been a hot topic in Penn because it’s been very visible. It appeared in the newspaper. But unfortunately, I think the buzz will die out over time. The Penn community might even forget about Madison, Elvis and Alice slowly.

What should the school do to stop the stress?

They should be a little bit more serious about allocating resources to mental health issues. Penn has a lot of money. The amount of money is not a big problem here, allocation is. They are not really doing enough to support the students in regards to mental health. These three students unfortunately passed away. There’s something Penn can do. There’s something students can do. Something parents and professors can do. It’s not just Penn’s fault, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a not important issue to address more directly.

What do your parents think about all of this?

Oh my God. I told my parents and they were like, “Are you sure about this?” In Korea, I have to serve in the military sometime, because all able-bodied Korean males must. If you have a past history of mental disorders, you get placed in a “specialized unit” and they pay extra attention to you. It’s horrible.

And firms don’t usually hire people with mental disorder backgrounds. My real name is not Jack Park; it’s my small attempt to avoid getting called out in Korea for the official records. The point is, they were very doubtful at first. Then I explained to them what I was going to do, that I prayed a lot about this, and I think God is telling me to do this, the Bible says share your testimony. My parents are Christian, too. So if that’s God’s will, we’ll support you, they said.

What if a fourth student suicide occurs at Penn this year, despite your efforts?

I’m trying my best, but at the end, we can’t really completely change everybody’s lives. We are humans with limitations. Did you watch the Disney movie “Frozen”? There’s that song “Let it Go.” I let go of my insecurities and unrealistic expectations for myself. I just do my best, and at the end it’s up to a higher being, I believe. I learned to become much more humble in my approach. I’m not a savior like Jesus Christ. I’m not going to actually change lives, I’m just here to share my story of hope and love and what I’ve been experiencing.

Is there anything about society’s response to suicidal thinking that you would most like to change, and how?

When people hear that someone had suicidal thoughts, one of the common natural responses is to avoid that person altogether, since they don’t want to be involved in the situation. It may be explained by the bystander effect combined with the diffusion of responsibility: Somebody should be doing something for them, but not me. My faculty advisor and professors at the University of Pennsylvania were all concerned about my condition back few years ago, but none of them really actively reached out to me personally. It is not because they are cold-hearted or apathetic, but because they thought they were not certified or qualified enough to deal with depression without a degree or a license.

That should change. I don’t have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but that does not mean that I can’t stop by and listen to my friends about their hardships, spend quality time with them, and pray for them.

Nobody is ready for suicide prevention. There are some prevention experts, but they absolutely cannot do the job alone. We all have friends and colleagues who might be depressed at this very moment, or at least be having a bad day. Around one in 10 Americans is depressed, so if you have more than 10 friends, you likely have somebody who you can reach out to check on. And they will appreciate it. It might, not to sound too dramatic,  even save some lives if we start to spread more love around every day. Please, please don’t ignore people who seem down or suicidal, they need your attention most at the moment.

As you said, you can’t really bring up this topic at a dinner party. But what can be done to make suicidal thinking something we can talk about more openly?

I don’t think people should always bring depression, mental illnesses, or suicides into dinner conversations. It might even cause increased thoughts of suicides. That would be almost similar to bringing up other grim topics of society, such as rape or murder, at a dinner party. What we could do better is to destigmatize mental health issues, since many people don’t really believe it’s a real condition.

People may tell you to simply “man up” or to “try harder” or to “be happy” when you tell them that you are depressed. For my darkest times, I did not have any capability to just “man up,” since my mind went through some sudden changes that disabled me to think positively at all for more than three months.

And depressive disorders are, tragically, too common. Around 120 million people worldwide suffer from some form of depression. I believe that is a vulnerable population worth investing our efforts into. When we get a cold, we don’t hesitate to visit a CVS to grab some medicine for fever. When we get chronically depressed, however, we hesitate and even feel ashamed admitting that we might be depressed and don’t seek for help. This negative stigma against mental health is not helpful at all. When there is an issue, we need to address it directly, and hiding it under fake smiles will only grow the problem further. For reasons I can’t still fully understand, I had a long depressive episode in my early college days that nearly ruined and perhaps even ended my life.

The struggle is real. Please believe me.

It’s not an easy disease to defeat, since it’s a plague of the mind, and the brain is one incredibly complicated system to deal with. Fortunately I had my loving parents, friends, and God taking care of me and seeking help for me.

Talk about this. Get support about this. Don’t ever give up about this. Pray about this. To add to the conversation, I share my email account to listen to your story _ yes, you reading this _ and tell you mine if you want to hear my case of recovery. We can perhaps be friends too after a few emails back and forth. I’m not that awkward in real life, I promise. You can find me at: jackpark778 (at) gmail.

Who else are you?

I’m working as an intern in a social impact consulting firm. I like studying marketing because I think it could be an easy fix for many problems. I used to intern for a cool Philadelphia laundry company.

I like Korean food (in Korea, it’s just called food), and I like traveling. I love seeing new cultures. I like to sing, I don’t know, this feels like filling out a dating site biography. And I think church can do a lot of good stuff for people, because you know, church and the Bible are often misunderstood. If you look beyond the misunderstandings, I think the Bible can do even more good than now.

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