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.

Growing up, Portia Antonia would hear the word ‘suicide’ on the news and TV but could not wrap her head around the idea.

One day, everything changed.

Alexis found her older sister’s body hanging in her dorm room’s closet. A hero of her childhood, brilliant, and empathetic, Alexis’ sister had always been curious about natural sciences. She would read medical books and be constantly worried about the lives of others.

“She wanted to save lives, so she decided to study medicine,” recalls Alexis.

However, the fascination in other’s lives did not mean that Alexis’ sister would hold on to her own. Depression — a leading cause of suicide — is prevalent among medical students. Its prevalence in cultures highlights the dire need to talk about the subject — now more than ever as the youth suicide rate has increased dramatically over the past year.

Alexis — now a neuro-economist and consumer goods analyst — still grieves and hasn’t quite gotten used to the fact that her sister died by suicide — the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.; at least 130 Americans die by suicide every day.

The tragic statistic highlights the significance of mental health discourse in society, which Antonia now strongly advocates for.

Here, Alexis discusses why it’s important to discuss mental health issues and suicide rates in youngsters, including medical students.

 

What do you think is the relationship between depression and the field of medicine, especially for young students?

In the field of medicine, the idea that you have to learn in pain remains significant. Like 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.

What are some of the contributing factors to depression in medical students?

In the U.S. and the U.K., medical students face several problems, including an overloaded schedule, pressure from teachers and supervisors, competition between students, and harassment from seniors.

Like my sister, medical students are under a lot of pressure, and this pressure gradually eats them up from the inside out until it takes the form of depression. They often tell themselves that it will pass over time, but one morning, they realize that it’s there to stay.

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.

Mental health’s been a taboo. How do you think denying or sidelining the issue impacts the progress we, as a society, are supposed to make regarding discussing mental health?

There is an actual denial by competent authorities of the significance of the phenomenon. As in my sister’s case, instead of debating the topic and finding concrete solutions, they focused on her problems. This is not the first time that this has happened; several families of medical students who have committed suicide have found themselves in similar situations.

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.

What’s the idea of ‘development’ without importance on mental health and social welfare?

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

Anyone can suffer from mental health issues, and there’s no economic line. How do you think this might change the approach to this discourse?

It doesn’t just end with education and poverty because even the strongest and wealthiest among us may give up on depression and suicide. This is the case of Mr. Alan B. Kruger, ex-chairman of the council of economic advisors, who committed suicide at 58. Many will say that Mr. Kruger had everything he needed, but his suicide shows that mental illnesses are more severe than people think.

It is time to act; it is time to fight this scourge; it is time to save our young people from a dark future. It’s time to prevent little girls from losing their older sisters and best friends.

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained crisis workers are available to talk around the clock throughout the week.

Photo Credit: Portia Antonia Alexis