Portia Antonia Alexis: What My Sister’s Suicide Taught Me

Written in partnership with Mind Mental Health Charity

Photo Credit: Portia Antonia Alexis

After finding her sister hanging in a medical school dorm, Portia wanted to know why.

For a long time, I have been hearing the word suicide on the TV news but never understood its full meaning until I found my older sister’s body hanging in her dorm room’s closet. My big sister was the hero of my childhood; she was brilliant, talented, but above all, an empathetic person. From a young age, my older sister already mastered the natural sciences and read medical books. She always worried about other peoples’ lives; she wanted to save lives, so she decided to study medicine. However, my older sister, who aspired to save other people’s lives, wasn’t able to save hers.

Like many young medical students, my sister faced life without showing any weakness sign in a country where suicide is the tenth biggest reason for death. Today, I blame myself because I should have seen something; I have the impression of not feeling anything anymore. Words seem meaningless and unable to express my great suffering. I believe that nobody realizes my loss; I lost my older sister with whom I spent all my life. During my childhood, my older sister was the one who brushed my hair, tells me stories before I sleep, and reassures me when I have nightmares.

In the field of medicine, the idea that you have to learn in pain remains significant. In the United States, 30% of medical students suffer from depression, while 10% of them think about suicideLike many other medical students, my big sister found herself under a form of social, economic, and intellectual pressure. For fear of appearing weak or incompetent, few future doctors dare to alert when things are wrong. Worse, when they have dark thoughts.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, medical students face several problems, including an overloaded schedule, pressure from teachers and supervisors, competition between students, and harassment from seniors. Like my sweet older sister, medical students are under a lot of pressure, and this pressure gradually eats them up from the inside out until it becomes depression. They often tell themselves that this depression will pass over time, but one morning, they realize that it will not pass when they look at themselves in the mirror. This depression, due to the obsession with performance in the medical field, impacts medical students’ lives (loss of friends, breakup, cessation of leisure in favor of sleepless nights, etc.). I’m sure my sister talked to someone at her university about her problems, but I think that person told her it’s always been like that and that there is nothing to do.

There is a real taboo when it comes to medical students’ suicides, and it makes me furious that my big sister did not receive the psychological help she needed. I do not understand how the government, the university, and the responsible authorities do not understand that medical students often face diseases, deaths, and a whole set of responsibilities towards their patients. Certainly, they learn to detach themselves from it all, but it inevitably influences them.

There is a real denial by the competent authorities of the greatness of the phenomenon. Instead of debating the topic and finding concrete solutions, they focused on my sister’s personal problems. This is not the first time that this has happened; several families of medical students who have committed suicide have found themselves in the same situation. It’s time for that to stop; it’s time to face the problem, get rid of that superhero image that we have of our future doctors, and see them as human beings able to sink into depression and take away their lives.

Suicide, a much bigger phenomenon

Unfortunately, suicide is not only related to medical students, but it became a nationwide phenomenon. In 2017, more than 47 000 Americans committed suicide, one of the reasons that can explain this huge number is poverty According to a recent Boston Hospital study, there is a strong correlation between poverty and suicide among children and adolescents nationwide. Researchers have discovered that the suicide rate among children and adolescents is 37% higher in U.S. counties with the highest poverty levels (where more than 20 percent of the county live below the federal poverty line).

I often wonder how politicians can claim to implement development and aid strategies for future generations when we lose thousands of these young people every year due to economic problems. If today, our young people abandon their dreams and lives, it is because the political class abandoned them first. Politicians who do not care about the poorest class, politicians who are ready to sacrifice everything to save big companies but who cut social assistance because of a so-called budget deficit.

But the problem is, it doesn’t just end with education and poverty because even the strongest and wealthiest among us may give up to depression and suicide. This is the case of Mr. Alan B. Kruger, ex-chairman of the council of economic advisors, who committed suicide at the age of 58Many will say that Mr. Kruger had everything he needed, but his suicide shows that mental illnesses are more serious than what people think. It is time to act; it is time to fight this scourge; it is time to save our homeland’s young people from a dark future. It’s time to prevent other little girls from losing their older sisters, best friends, and the best part of their lives.

Photo Credit: Portia Antonia Alexis