Blog Entry 1 – Surviving
By Rita Malenczyk
“I’m a suicide loss survivor,” I told my tutor education class at Eastern Connecticut State University in Fall 2019. This isn’t something I normally tell my classes, but this semester was a special case. I’m a professor of English at Eastern. I direct the Writing Center, which is staffed by undergraduate peer tutors who go through a hiring process that includes an interview. During the interview, I always ask the applicants to talk about a time when they struggled with writing, and how they dealt with that struggle. I ask the question because I want to know that they can empathize with the student writers they’ll be working with.
Of the seventeen applicants that year, three of them told me that their struggles occurred because of mental health issues: “I talk about these things freely because I think it’s important,” one of those applicants told me in the interview. In the training course, during the “introduce yourself” part on the first day of class where the students can say anything about themselves, several of them spoke about profound experiences that had shaped them. One talked about being a queer writer who suffered from anxiety. Another—the one who’d told me in the interview about her mental health issues—told the class about them. And yet another talked about her father’s suicide.
That was when I said I was a suicide loss survivor. I didn’t mention the fact that I am living with bipolar disorder (type II) and that the same illness (type I) killed my 19-year-old son Nick, who took his own life eight months before.
Yes, a disease killed my son. We don’t tend to think about a mental illness as a disease that can kill people—like cancer. Why is that? The sad reality is that mental health stigma still prevents many people from fully understanding the complexities of mental health illnesses. Our society has normalized conversations and shows empathy for people who are living with cancer, diabetes, heart disease—so where are brain illnesses? Too many people think that because the illness is mental, it’s only mental, not bodily. But what is the brain if not part of the body?
Any reader of this blog probably knows that our attitudes about mental health illnesses need to change. We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, with young people particularly at risk, especially since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I hope we can erase the stigma associated with mental health illnesses by sharing our stories, like the three students in my tutor pool did. If they can openly share their own struggles—can the rest of us (including me) learn to speak more publicly about them too?
In my blog entries I plan to talk about my son Nick and his life, including as much about his struggles with mental illness as I feel he would think okay to share; about my family’s life in the aftermath of his death; about my own life as a college professor who’s concerned with her students’ mental health. I hope in sharing I’m helping normalize conversations about mental health illnesses. I look forward to writing for you.
Rita Malenczyk is professor of English at Eastern Connecticut State University, where she has taught for over 25 years. In her spare time she is a painter and printmaker. She lost her son, Nick Mayer, to suicide in 2019 after a battle with bipolar disorder.
If you need support now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or, text 741741 to get help 24/7 from the Crisis Text Line. If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.