Talking About Suicide

Talking with Josh Walfish


A year ago, Josh Walfish sat down and wrote a column for his student newspaper at Northwestern University about recent suicides on campus and his own experience with suicide attempts. We can have all the resources in the world, but we have to look out for each other and make sure the people around us will use them, he said.

Josh is passionate about making this a more open subject, but he drew a spirited line at the media’s interest in the details of suicide attempts. “Nobody is going to sit there and criticize a rape victim for not giving every single detail of the night they were raped,” he says. “So why do we criticize attempt survivors for not going into the most painful place of their lives? The fact is, there has to be some other reason you’re writing the story, and that should take precedence.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

So, I’m Josh Walfish, a recent college graduate of Northwestern University. I am a sports journalist in North Carolina, living my dream, one word at a time. And I am … It’s funny, because having graduated college and trying to present yourself, it’s always been difficult for me: Do I bring up issues from my past? Do I not? Obviously for this it’s important, but it’s one of those things, I think, that over time I haven’t allowed my mental health issues to define me as much. So I’ll introduce myself: a Northwestern grad, a sports journalist living my dream, and I’m ready for what life brings me next.

A year and a half ago, I probably would have thrown in the fact that I’m someone who suffers from mental illness, but it’s not something that defines me in the present moment.

What changed? What inspired that?

It was a long process for me of just different therapies, talking with friends. What really changed was, I was accepted into the group therapy program at Northwestern, and that community really just changed my perspective. This blog does a great job highlighting that these mental health issues can happen to anybody, and that’s exactly what I saw in this group. A lot of very nice people from all sorts of backgrounds, and we all shared this same sort of bond, some sort of mental illness, bipolar, depression, whatever it may be. And you listen to these stories, “Ooh, I can connect to that,” whereas that person and I maybe have nothing else in common other than this battle. When I saw these people not let it define them in the public sphere, I made that my mission. Through a lot of help from friends and family, I progressed to where it’s not … It is a part of me, no doubt, but it’s no longer defining me.

A year ago, when you wrote your column, where were you in this transformation?

That was very early on in my transformation. The column I wrote last November for Northwestern’s newspaper, that came out of pure frustration. Unfortunately, Northwestern had gone through a period of great loss. In the previous 13 months, we had six students die – five of whom committed suicide, the sixth just disappeared and unfortunately was found in Lake Michigan a couple of weeks later. All I kept hearing on campus was “The administration’s not doing enough.” I’d go to these vigils on campus and hear “The administration needs to put more resources.” But at the same time, you hear friends saying, “I wish I could have done more, I wish I could have seen this person’s pain.” And in my mind I’m like, “But you did. Or you weren’t as good a friend with him/her as you thought.” That was the difficult thing. I wrote that it’s very simple. We can ask for all these resources, but if you can’t get that person who is struggling to use those resources, you can have all the resources and it’s not going to matter. It’s up to you as a friend to say, “Hey, I’m sensing you’re a little bit depressed, things aren’t OK, how are you feeling, what’s happening?”

And the response I got from that was remarkable. I was getting emails, people coming up saying, “It’s remarkable how much more I’m learning just by asking someone how they’re doing.” Mental health issues are very important, we need to put more resources, but by the same token, it comes down to the human element as well. The column was when I started bringing friends into the process. I got all the help I needed, now it was down to the personal side of things. I’d ask my friends, “How would you define me?” A lot brought up mental health issues, but it became clear to me that I’m more than the person who has attempted suicide twice. Is that me? Yes, but I’m more than that person. I’m the loyal friend. If you need $10 for cab fare, if I have it, I’ll give it to you. That’s the person I am. I’m a successful journalist. A college graduate. All those things are more important in terms of how I define myself; they’re just as much a part of me.

Was your change more external or internal?

Mostly my change was internal. I think most people didn’t automatically associate it with me: “Josh, whoa, this kind of came out of left field for me. I’ve known you for four years, and magically these issues appear.” And so, it was a lot more internal, a lot more me not defining myself by it, using it as a crutch. I don’t need to lean on the fact that I’m depressed to dictate what I do and don’t do. I started becoming a lot more social, saying, “You know what? Instead of going to bed at 11, I’ll act like a college student and if someone says come out, I’ll go.” I became much more active, and it did wonders for me. And it made me realize I am more than just my illness.

What were the other responses to your column?

I think the ones that really surprised me were casual acquaintances. I had people who would email me with their stories and ask for advice. I wrote in my column that if you feel you don’t have anyone close enough to you to share your pain, I’ll be that person. Did I expect people to take it up? Not in the slightest. But people did. I remember one kid from high school who emailed me saying he disagreed with me, he said, “Oh, I do such a great job of hiding my suffering that no one knows I’m in pain.” I said, “Go ask the three people closest to you and ask, ‘This is what I was feeling, did you see any signs?’ I guarantee at least two will say something.” He said he asked five and all five were not surprised by what he was telling them. That’s the beauty. At the end of the day, we recognize that our friends are not thriving and it’s up to us to intervene: “You haven’t been acting yourself lately, what’s going on?” When you do, it’s remarkable the reaction. When you show you’re interested in somebody, it makes a world of difference. It makes them feel heard, important. It lifts their self-confidence and, more important, it allows them to be more honest with themselves and seek treatment and the help they need.

Are you still in touch with those who reached out?

If Facebook counts as staying in touch, then yes. I’ll always have that bit of me making sure they’re OK. I try not to be overly involved in their life because at the end of the day I’m still working on myself, too. I’m still trying to check in with many friends in high school and college I now know on a deeper basis, to be there for them in ups and downs. I know that I can only help so much and they need someone who really knows them.

How old are you?

22. I’ll be 23 in two months.

What concerns did you consider about your future when your column came out?

Someone asked me the day after, “Were you concerned?” I said no. I emailed the editor in chief, “Listen, I want to write this.” It was right after we lost another student to suicide. She’s like, “Absolutely, we’d be honored.” I sat down and, like, 30 minutes later had, like, 1,300 words. I spent the next 15 minutes paring it down to about 1,000 and sent it in. Not once did I think about implications. And then afterward people asked, “Were you concerned?” I would be very disappointed if someone came up to me and said, “Listen, you’re extremely qualified and we’d love to hire you, but we think you need to be in a mental institution and not in the workplace.” That doesn’t define who I am. Am I still in therapy? Yes. It’s important for me. But to say I’m not fit to work because I deal with mental health issues and am public about my fight with mental illness doesn’t mean that I’m unfit to work. I wouldn’t want to work in an environment that would feel that way. Where I am, in North Carolina, you know, they’re very supportive of it. When I got my orientation, they had a whole pamphlet of services for grief and personal troubles, and that made me feel good. I can be open and honest if that time ever came. I don’t bring it up because it’s not relevant to my job. But if it’s relevant, I’d be happy to be honest about that, and I assume there would be no repercussions.

Do you see any differences on this issue between older and younger generations?

I don’t know if younger people are being more fearless or the older generation is being used to work and personal life being very separate, and a lot of inner demons, you didn’t want them to show because that’s weakness, and if you’re weak you’re not fit to work. It’s like people who struggled because of being LGBT. But you see people, my generation, being more open about sexuality, mental health, and we’ve lived in a more welcoming society than older generations. Us being bolder? I don’t know. It’s being in a society where being open and honest is OK, and if we find that a company is not willing to be as accepting, there will be 10 companies that will be accepting. We’re not as worried about those ramifications.

Quite frankly, it’s shown that it doesn’t matter whether you suffer from mental illness or LGBT, or woman or black, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if you can perform the tasks and can do it in an acceptable manner, what happens outside the workplace shouldn’t matter. I’m not breaking any laws by suffering from depression, so it doesn’t matter what’s going in my personal life.

How can we open up the topic more overall?

That’s an extremely, extremely tough question. I will say I think it will take a lot of people like me and you and these subjects who have talked to you being open, honest and putting stories out there and spreading the word and getting awareness out there. But it’s a topic in society where it’s still taboo. And LBGT issues are slowly becoming less taboo, but they’re still pretty taboo for most of society. So it’s just, it’s having blogs like this, having people like me being open and honest and hoping that the more people that are open and honest, the more people are going to realize how much their lives are affected by people who deal with mental illness. It’s the same thing we’re seeing where most of society is realizing they have friends who are LGBT or, you know, someone who died in combat or whatever it may be. When it becomes that common, “You know what, it’s this important to me because my best friend suffers from depression, or my best friend’s sister died by suicide …”

Mental health and suicide prevention groups, how can they step up?

They play a very important role. The services, resources they provide are invaluable to the community, to people like me. That being said, could they be doing more? No, because I think within the budget they have, the messages they provide, they’re doing an excellent job at doing what they can. Of course, I would love nothing more than to see mental health ads be as prevalent on TV as political ads. Living in North Carolina, I saw a U.S. Senate ad probably every other commercial. As much as those political ads annoyed me, I would love nothing more, and probably would watch TV more, if every other ad would be about mental health awareness. That said, these organizations don’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars to do that year-round. They’re doing great things with the limited resources they have. To ask them to do more is irresponsible if we as a society are not going to give them the capital to do more. That’s why I wrote that column. We can talk about adding resources, but unless we fit patients to the resources, unless we can get people to use them, it doesn’t matter.

Will this ever become as un-taboo as cancer is now?

I certainly hope so. I certainly hope in my lifetime it will become as taboo as cancer, which is to say, not at all. It goes back to the ALS ice bucket challenge. We had people who said, “We want to make a difference treating ALS and do this thing” and boom, funding goes up. We could find the next ice bucket challenge and make a difference. It’s just going to take time. Who am I to say that suicide prevention is more important than putting money to cure cancer or cure ALS or any of these diseases? That’s where it becomes tricky. How do we find subjects to boost the awareness and get suicide prevention on the level of cancer and AIDS and all these other horrific diseases? I think the government is very important, but at the end of the day, the government is a mess right now. So we can’t rely on the government. We have to rely on ourselves and what we can do. It’s difficult. If this can’t get into mainstream media, it will sit on the periphery. I don’t know any other way than to keep talking about it and hope it sticks eventually. It would be great if Hollywood comes out with a series of movies about people battling depression, suicidal thoughts and overcoming them and creating those feel-good stories.

How can we change the misguided perception that suicidal thinking is something we choose?

As you bring it up, I’m clapping with excitment. This is the most frustrating thing for me. Of course, I got plenty of emails: “Just perk up! Think happy thoughts!” You know what? I would love nothing more. If that was the solution, I would be one of the happiest people on the planet. But obviously, it’s not. How do we fix that misconception? A) education. And B) more important, letting the majority of people who are educated about the issue become spokespeople. We see this all the time. The people who are loudest are the people who are uninformed. You get these myths and everybody assumes they’re true. People who are uninformed have the megaphone. We can sit and try to counteract, but once they believe it, they’re not going to change their thinking. We have to get to my generation, the one after mine that’s slowly starting to enter, and say, “Listen, this isn’t a choice.” For the most part, these are biological issues brought on by certain situations. And educating them about what really goes into mental health issues. Even if depression or bipolar doesn’t lead to suicidal thoughts, it doesn’t change the fact that depression is a major disease inflicting us as a nation. We do need to be educated the same way we are about cancer, AIDS and now Ebola. I would love nothing more than have the CDC come out with a depression pamphlet.

What does your family think about all of this?

I don’t think it shocks either of my parents, that I’m being open and honest and tell people what I think, because that’s what I do. When I wrote the column, I gave them a bit of a heads-up. My mother read the column and, wonderful Jewish mother she is, she’s very supportive of me, asks me all the time how I’m doing. Any time I’m not doing great, she says, “Well you have your therapist’s number if you’re thinking of doing anything drastic.” I say, “Mom, we’re not anywhere close to that.” My father is silently supportive, I guess. He’s just a very odd fellow when it comes to his emotions. It’s something we don’t really talk about because I’m a bit nervous as to what he would say. I have two siblings, both of them know, but it’s one of those unspoken things like, “Yeah, we know it but it doesn’t affect us right now, so we’re not going to talk about it.”

What more would you like to do on this issue?

That’s tricky. I’m super willing to do more. I’m super willing to share my story, whether speaking or writing. So I was so excited to talk to you. I can be honest, spread awareness in more ways. But it comes down to, for me, not only finding avenues but finding people willing to listen. It’s about me finding them, connecting with them, finding ways to continue to share. I talk with friends a lot. It’s one of those things that’s just kind of become a cause I’m very passionate about, something I want to try to eradicate in our society. We talked about stigma before. Eradicate that, make sure people are educated, make sure they understand this is not a choice, that it has biological undertones. Anything I can do to help make society, one more person, educated, I’m totally on board. If anyone reads this and wants to talk to me, contact Cara.

How does the media do on this issue, portraying us?

It’s a mixed bag. I became very aware of this when I was at the student newspaper. It’s very important for me to realize how are we covering this, what’s the language we’re using. It’s like any obituary, we have to respect the person who’s deceased. More importantly, where I think the media gets a bit too carried away is, and we see this with Robin Williams, we get news reports about the method, how they did it. That has no place. Nobody’s sitting there writing a story about, you know, the fact that the heart slowly gave out as the blood was rushing out of his left leg … Nobody describes other deaths in that detail, so why is the manner of suicide so much more important than the way anyone else dies? You can say they committed suicide and that’s the end of it. The manner is not relevant. I was not appreciative at all of the way the media portrayed his death. They were so hell-bent on portraying how he did it. Anyone who says it does matter is, you’re invading that person’s privacy. That’s the last thing we as a society need to do. There are some things that need to be private, and this is one of them.

What about having it as a dramatic anecdote to start a story? I know of one case where the reporter told a central person in the story that maybe their part should be taken out if they didn’t talk about the details of their attempt.

That’s ridiculous. To think reporters are out there who think to threaten a source? You should be thankful they’re willing to speak with you! I think when we look at suicide attempts, you know, the survivors should be given the same respect as rape victims. People whose homes were burglarized, or people who were taken as hostages. For some people, there can be a whole mess of PTSD-related pain you could be inflicting by making them relive it. The fact that media members are going to say, “We’re not going to tell your story because you’re not willing to get into those deeply painful places with someone you met maybe 20 minutes ago,” it’s lunacy. That’s the only word I can think about. And now I’m getting very aggravated. If anyone came up to me and said, “We need to know exact details of what happened, I would say, “Here’s the door, you can leave.” There are certain things I can describe, whether in my writing, or in talks with people, and that’s fine, but there are things I keep to myself for a reason. I don’t want to go back to that sort of place.

So we’re against the all-or nothing approach.

Nobody is going to sit there and criticize a rape victim for not giving every single detail of the night they were raped. So why do we criticize attempt survivors for not going into the most painful place of their lives? The fact is, there has to be some other reason you’re writing the story, and that should take precedence. There are plenty of ways to get narrative into a story without saying, “He took the knife in his hand …” There are better ways to approach that story and, quite honestly, it’s lazy journalism. Now, yes, there are times you say, “That’s going to be my lede.” That’s fine. but to tell me you’re going into a story having pre-written it and hoping the source backs up what you wrote, that’s lazy journalism. I know plenty of people who force-feed anecdotes, make a cookie-cutter story. A good journalist takes evidence, crafts it into a story they want to tell while respecting their sources. If any journalist out there threatens to not include a source because they’re not willing to go into a painful experience, I question how much you really want to tell this story.

I came across an unusual question recently. A reporter asked an attempt survivor to show their medical records as proof of their attempt. How do you think that should be handled?

What happens if I don’t have the medical record to prove it? Right? I don’t have records to prove it. But guess what? I can refer you to other people who were there and witnessed it. … There are a lot of things in medical records you might forget and don’t want to make public. That’s a problem. And quite frankly, I applaud the fact these journalists want to make sure they’re reporting the facts, but there are other ways to do it than to request medical records. And honestly, you as a journalist should be able to trust your sources. For something like this, who out there would be so willing to get into a news story that they would fake attempting suicide? That goes far beyond anything I could ever comprehend. If you want to be sure, ask, “Is there anyone else I can talk to to confirm the facts?” That’s the way I would approach it.

There was big news recently with the young woman who moved to Oregon to take advantage of its assisted suicide law. Some people have strong opinions on this subject, and others see it as a different world altogether. What do you think?

I do think it is a completely different world. Assisted suicide/death with dignity is a decision made based on physical ailments, not psychological ones. That’s the biggest difference for me. I could not imagine having to watch your body deteriorate physically and realizing you can’t do anything about it. There are some physical conditions that are terminal, and if you don’t want to subject yourself to the pain and suffering of a long, gruesome death, I understand. That’s different from mental illness where the issues may never fully go away, but they are treatable and don’t need to be terminal.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The one thing I want to add is that yes, a suicide attempt is an important part of someone’s life, a turning point in someone’s life, but it never should define them. There’s a lot more to people like me than the fact that I attempted suicide. I take great pride in the work I do, in being an excellent friend. And those are things I choose to define myself as. And I hope people define me that way as well. People are courageous enough to go public about their attempts; that shouldn’t cloud your judgment about who they are. They’re still that same person. You’re just getting a new wrinkle in their life. Don’t treat every new wrinkle as the most important thing that defines them. You’ll often find the most important things within the first 20 minutes of meeting them. If you don’t find that out in the first 20 minutes, obviously it’s not important enough to be an identifying factor.

That’s a good lead-in to the final question: Who else are you?

I’m a journalist that is very passionate about his work, about his family and about his friends. And I will do anything to ensure that none of my family or friends has to go through what I went through. And at the end of the day, I’m a journalist who is committed to his work, his family, his friends and is going to be loyal to the end. I’m somebody who takes great pride in who I am personally, and how I appear to other people. I work very hard at making sure at the end of the day you understand I would never hurt someone intentionally, I would never go out of my way to cause harm to somebody. And I’m as good of a friend as anybody could ever wish for. I’m as good of a son as anybody could ever wish for. As good of a brother as anybody could ever wish for. And hopefully in the next 10 years, I’ll be as good of a father as anyone could ever wish for. And those things are important to me.

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