Preventing suicide and helping our children become the adults they deserve to be.

Another memory from the fog of my illness surfaced yesterday, one that has touched me more deeply than perhaps any other. It was triggered by an article about the American Psychiatric Association who published a report on 5 Nov 2018 which showed that between 2007 and 2017 the number of US college students seeking mental health treatment rose from 22% to 36%, that suicidal ideation rose from 6% to 11% and that by the end of the study over a third of all students surveyed, some 150,000 from 196 colleges, were receiving some form of psychiatric treatment. Titled the Healthy Minds Study it is being lauded as a triumph over the stigma of mental illness, saving lives and highlighting the need to increase the numbers of counselling centres across college campuses due to the strain they are now facing.

However, this isn’t what I have taken away from this study. What I want to know is why over 1 in 10 students think about killing themselves, and why around 1100 US college students between the ages of 18 and 24 commit suicide, with another 24000 attempting it? Record numbers of suicides among UK university students are also being recorded.

During one of my stays in the psychiatric hospital, in around 2015, I met two young women, both students, who had been recently admitted. Of all the many people I met during my five inpatient admissions, these two are the people I remember the most clearly, and who’s stories had the most profound effect on me, and I’d like to explain why. The account below is true, however I’ve changed people’s names.

I met them on a Monday in therapy. Monday therapy was my least favourite; held in the smallest of the therapy rooms it did nothing for my sense of claustrophobia. It also brought with it a new selection of patients admitted over the weekend, breaking the continuity I enjoyed with some of the regular attendees. The therapist always gave time to the new patients, allowing them time to introduce themselves and describe what brought them here, and what they wished to work on. If the group was well attended it sometimes meant I wouldn’t get a chance to speak.

However, there were only four of us in therapy that morning. Robert sat hunched to my left, a man I had met in therapy on several occasions already. A shadow of the former person I imagined he once was: a successful business owner and estranged father of three children, he was unshaven, heavy, a fellow victim of bipolarity. His eyes looked hollow, a likely side effect of the antipsychotics he was taking. Two empty seats separated him from a raven-haired young woman whom I hadn’t seen before. She was dressed in black from head to foot, although there was nothing gothic about her appearance, with each item of clothing a carefully selected texture and shade. Her arms were covered by long sleeves to her wrists, I would later learn for good reason. Across from her was another new face and I stared transfixed for a moment. Young, beautiful, lost eyes met my gaze before looking away. Wearing a single piece low cut floral dress, she wouldn’t have looked out of place in the John Lewis catalogue if it wasn’t for her completely shaved head, which probably had less than two days of growth showing. She couldn’t have been more than a teenager and was clutching a small notepad and what appeared to be a comic book.

The group ran just as every other group did. Everyone had the opportunity to introduce themselves and say a few words about what they would like to discuss that morning. The raven-haired woman spoke with the most impeccable received English accent, the product of expensive schooling and wealth I assumed. Her name was Esme and she had been admitted as an emergency the night before. The other young lady was called Anna and she was just eighteen years old. She looked so very lost, and I later learned that if she had been just 2 months younger, she would have been in the children’s ward. She too had been admitted the day before, her parents collecting her from university and depositing her in the psychiatric ward. I would never learn why, she chose never to share her story with the group.

I saw Anna and Esme most days in the recreation room, usually lying on their stomachs colouring in pictures of Disney princesses in crayon while singing Let it Go from Frozen. It sounds so cliched it’s hard to believe but they behaved just like school girls. They would often deliberately start humming Let it Go just to annoy me after they learned I couldn’t get the tune out of my head!

The following Friday Esme was discharged but come the next Monday morning therapy she was back again, having been readmitted on Sunday following an incident with a kitchen knife.

It was this Monday morning therapy that had the most powerful impact on me of any of the many therapy sessions I attended over the years. I can remember it as clear as if it happened yesterday, which is remarkable when you consider I have amnesia, and it was young Anna who did something that morning I think no one in that room will ever forget.

Everyone sat in the same chairs as the previous week. Poor Robert looked black, a shell of a man, scared and unable to process his world, his brain sick and medicated. Esme, in jeans and a brown jacket sat with her knees pulled to her chest; a small while bandage poking out beneath the cuff of her jacket. The session followed the same format: rules, introductions, everyone gets a turn, but Esme asked not to speak. We could all see the pain in her eyes but as is usual in therapy sessions, you are both powerless and relieved that their problem is not yours. It’s a kind of self-defence mechanism; it’s hard enough to face your own demons, let alone deal with some else’s.

However, Anna was clearly deeply concerned for her new friend. She spoke nothing of her own troubles, preferring to offer help to Esme throughout the whole session. As the end neared and my thoughts turned to lunch, Anna, clutching the same small notepad and colourful comic book as last week, asked if she could read something to the group, something she explained that gave her comfort and brought thoughts of hope and happiness at the darkest of times. For an 18-year-old she spoke with a confidence and authority that surprised me, and at the time I considered her naïve and was embarrassed for her; but today I think of her as one of those rarest of people, wise well beyond her years and with a compassion that had been untainted by the harshness of adulthood.

She pulled out her comic book and asked if it was ok is if she read it to us all, from beginning to end.

It was Oh the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.

She opened the book and began:

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

I was unfamiliar with this prose, I had never read a Dr. Seuss book before, but as she went on, I was enchanted.

You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there."
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, 
you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

In those pages, this children’s book by an author I thought too childish to read when I was 7 years old, were some of the wisest words I heard spoken during my many months in that psychiatric hospital. More powerful than anything I heard from the doctors and nurses, more poignant that anything a therapist told me. All uttered from the mouth of a child.

And then things start to happen,
don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too.


She went on, never once faltering or looking up from her book. I was utterly transfixed, I just stared and listened.

And when you're in a Slump,
you're not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they're darked.

Throughout her reading Esme never stirred, never spoke, never looked up. To this day I don’t know what became of her or Anna, I was discharged later that week to an uncertain future, but her words stayed with me. I’m not ashamed to say those words made me cry that day; I mourned for who I once was, young, full of hope and dreams, and despaired at who I had become, hopeless and unhappy. I would go no places, see no more joy.

Yet today I draw on that memory and those words with both joy and sorrow, a sorrow for the years I lost and the places I never went, and sorrow for those young women who's lives had been so cruelly interrupted; yet an overwhelming joy for the recovery I have made and the many places I can now go. And go there I will!

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)


These are our children, our most fragile, most beautiful, most important legacy; our hope and our future. We send them out into the world full of the joys of life yet so unprepared for the harsh reality we humans have built around us. Our toxic cities, chronic stress, the chemicals, factory food, the lack of sleep and sedentary lifestyle. We expect our students to study hard, play hard, achieve greatness, for they hold the future in their hands, yet the past they’ve inherited is not fit for the ancient genome we have passed to them, or the trillions of old friends they carry inside. They leave their mothers kitchen to a life of late nights, exams, pizza, parties and chemical highs; is it any surprise that some will break? Ripped from the shelter and protection of the parental home as they courageously try and move into adulthood without the knowledge of how to adapt and care for their fragile self, a mental crisis waiting to explode.

Those young women I met, their powerful innocence and fragility, the young men like the ones I and Robert once were, full of hope so cruelly shattered by trauma and a toxic burden that in my case provoked my immune system into destroying parts of my brain, and all those countless other young people heading off to the world, full of the joys of life and unbridled ambition, all of us cut down by mental illness as we struggle to find our place.

We have a duty to share what we know of our place in the world, the need to care for our health through careful food choices, managing stress, keeping moving and getting good sleep. Caring for our ‘old friends’ in our microbiome, ensuring we feed our bodies not with the student favourites of pizza and cheap bread, but with plates of vegetables, fish and fruits. These are the lessons we must teach our children: their place in nature, the basic tenets of health. And the power of strong friendships like that of Anna and Esme, who I hope remain friends, and wherever they are I hope found happiness and joy, for happiness is something we adults should carry with us as we leave our childhoods behind. With health, hope and happiness you can do most anything, wherever you choose to go, whichever street you go down or mountain you climb, when you have health, hope and happiness your journey will most likely be a joyful one. And if that journey is undertaken with friends, it is the best journey of all.

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
You're off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!