book reviews, mental health

Repost: A review of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story…

This is a repost of a book review I wrote for my original blog on May 13, 2014. It appears here as/is.

I honestly don’t remember why I downloaded Ned Vizzini’s book, It’s Kind of A Funny Story.  It was published in 2010 and has been turned into a movie, but I think it was intended for young adults.  No matter.  I found Vizzini’s book very engaging and entertaining, even though it’s basically about an adolescent male who struggles with depression and suicidal ideation and ends up in a mental ward.

Craig Gilner is fifteen years old and attending Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School.  He’s a high achieving kind with visions of success and prosperity in his very bright looking future.  Getting that success means getting into the right high school, the right college, the right grad school, and marrying the right person.  So Craig works to achieve those lofty goals and soon gets weighed down by depression.  Craig realizes that compared to his classmates, he’s not all that impressive.  He stops eating and sleeping and one night, decides he’s going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.

So he calls a suicide hotline.  At first, he gets routed to a guy who doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.  The operator on the hotline tries to get Craig to do some exercises intended to reduce anxiety, but they end up making him more anxious.  He hangs up and calls another suicide hotline and is advised to get to a hospital.  He goes to the emergency room at a hospital two blocks from where he lives.  He gets admitted to Six North, where he gets help.  There, he meets people with some real problems… and isolated from his high pressure school, Craig is able to isolate the source of his anxiety and depression and change his life.

Author Vizzini has himself spent time in a mental hospital, so he’s able to make his story ring true.  He injects a lot of humor into a story that could be bogged down with too much of a heavy subject.  The end result is a very readable book that many people will relate to easily.  I myself have dealt with depression and anxiety, but I haven’t yet spent time in a mental ward.  I hope I never will experience such a thing…  but I’m glad Vizzini was able to turn his personal experiences into a story that will help and entertain others.

Yes, this book is intended for teens from 9th grade up, but as a 41 year old adult, I also enjoyed it.  That’s really saying something, because nowadays, I’m really more into true stories than novels.  I would recommend It’s Kind of A Funny Story, particularly to young people who feel stressed about the future.  Of course, most people worry about what’s coming next… but this book especially speaks to precocious teens and zany middle-aged people like me.

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mental health, psychology

No one should ever die over spilt coffee!

The last couple of years have really been quite the mess, haven’t they? I wouldn’t be a young person in America again for anything, especially in this post pandemic hellscape. Young people are under so much pressure to make it. I remember what it was like to be young and unsure, filled with anxiety and depression, feeling like a failure, and when I was clinically depressed, actually thinking about suicide on a daily basis.

I thought I would be broke and unloved, or working in a job that I hated, desperately trying to earn enough to pay my own way. I went through this anguish for years, only to somehow find myself on a career path to a career I probably wouldn’t have loved that much. Then I met Bill, and was soon swept off that path, and into a new future that I had never, in a million years, envisioned for myself. Even after twenty years, I can’t believe this happened. I never would have thought that the answer for me was finding the right man. That’s not how I was raised AT ALL.

I’ll be honest. There are times when I still feel anxious. There are times when I am depressed. Sometimes I worry about what’s going to happen. Then I am awed by what I have… amazed, even. And I’m glad I didn’t give in to the urge to commit suicide when I was still in my 20s. Then I think to myself… if I had done that, I wouldn’t have been any the wiser about what was to come. My life would have been unfinished, like Neuschwanstein… or an incomplete novel with no ending.

You might already be wondering what’s brought on today’s musings, which some people might find a little disturbing. Well, I don’t assume anyone worries about my mental health, and there’s no reason to do that now. I’m not feeling particularly depressed today. It’s just that this morning, I read a story about yet another high achieving young woman who decided to kill herself over something that really should have been a blip on the proverbial radar.

The Washington Post ran a story today about Katie Meyer, a young woman who, by most accounts, should have been on top of the world. On February 28, 2022, 22 year old Meyer was just a few months from finishing her degree at Stanford University, where she was a soccer star and captain of the university’s soccer team. She had a 3.84 GPA, and in 2019, had helped lead the prestigious university to a national championship in soccer. She had plans to attend law school. She’d hoped to attend Stanford for law school, too.

On February 28, Katie Meyer had done seemingly normal things. She went to classes, soccer practice, and an event for the Mayfield Fellows Program, for which she had recently been selected. She had FaceTimed with her mom and sister about her spring break plans. She had emailed her mother about plane tickets she had booked. She’d never make the flight, though. February 28, 2022 was her last day of life. Katie Meyer committed suicide that day.

So what happened on February 28 that led to Katie Meyer’s untimely death? It started with spilled coffee in August 2021.

On that fateful day in August 2021, Katie Meyer was riding her bike when she somehow spilled coffee on a football player who was accused of sexually assaulting (kissing without permission) one of Katie’s teammates, who was 17 years old. Katie maintained that the coffee spilling incident was an accident. The football player, who was not identified and never faced any disciplinary charges, didn’t even complain about the spilled coffee. However, the incident was reported to Stanford’s Office of Community Standards by the dean of residential education. An investigation ensued, and apparently, for the first time in her life, Katie Meyer was in some trouble.

The complaint against Meyer indicated that spilling the coffee on the football player had caused physical injury. It was the university’s standard practice to review the incident and determine whether or not Katie should be disciplined. Meanwhile, the incident regarding the football player’s uninvited kiss of the soccer player was also reported to the Title IX office. However, that office determined that the criteria for investigating the kissing incident were not met.

In September, Meyer spoke with a university administrator about the coffee incident. She expressed how distressed she was by the investigation. Two months after that meeting, Meyer provided a formal statement about the incident, again explaining that the disciplinary process had caused her great worry and stress. She feared the incident would derail her career plans and ultimately even ruin her life. According to the Washington Post:

“My whole life I’ve been terrified to make any mistakes,” she wrote. “No alcohol, no speeding tickets, no A- marks on my report cards. Everything had to be perfect to get in and stay at Stanford. I suffer from anxiety and perfectionism, as so many female athletes do. We know all too well that in professional settings women have everything to lose and have to work twice as hard to prove that they are qualified and professional, and any mistake is magnified, any attitude of assertiveness is demonized.”

Man… I can remember feeling like that, too. And I am definitely NOT Stanford material. So often we think of high achievers like Katie Meyer– young, beautiful, brilliant, athletic– richly gifted in almost every way. We think of how lucky they are. We never stop to think about the incredible pressure they’re under and how much pressure they put on themselves. It’s easy for me, at age 50, to sit here and think this is ridiculous that a young woman like Katie Meyer– who seemingly had EVERYTHING going for her– would kill herself over spilled coffee.

I empathize with Katie. I remember very well being young and scared, and feeling like I needed to excel. I also felt like I needed to excel when I was very young. I felt like it was expected of me, not just from my parents and other elders in my life, but also and especially from myself. Unlike Katie, I didn’t excel at that much. But, like her, I felt like I really needed to achieve, and if I didn’t, my life would not be worth living.

I remember working as a temp in the admissions office at the College of William & Mary, where extremely talented, bright, high achieving young people attended school. I read their essays, letters of recommendation, and report cards, and filed them away, along with lots of other items they sent in to convince the admissions committee that they were worthy to matriculate at William & Mary in the fall of 1998. So many of them seemed desperate to achieve… and unaware that there are so many ways to succeed at life. In 1998, I was 26 years old, a graduate of a less prestigious college, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I felt like a loser, even though I had already done a lot. Depression and anxiety will do that to a person, especially when they’re young.

I was fortunate, though, because I found a really kind and understanding therapist who helped me. I took medication that helped even out my thinking. I took voice lessons, which were relaxing and therapeutic for me… a form of expression that was easy for me and brought positive regard. Gradually, I started to see other pathways out of that hell. It took some time, but I finally moved past that dreaded anxiety ridden state of youth that makes young, ambitious, talented people to consider suicide.

In Katie’s situation, several months passed, and Katie apparently figured the trouble had blown over. She started to relax and look forward to her bright future. But then she got that email at about 7:00 pm on February 28th. She was alone, and panicked. Hours later, she was found unresponsive in her dorm room. The email from the Office of Community Standards informing her that there was a hold on her degree and she could be removed from the university due to the spilled coffee incident was still open on her computer. Apparently, Katie had not responded to a February 25th email indicating that more information had been added to her file regarding the spilled coffee incident. The Office of Community Standards had requested more exonerating evidence from Katie by February 28th. She was a very busy student, though, and had evidently missed the email. Since the supporting evidence had never arrived, the university sent the after hours email that left Meyer so distraught that she took that last devastating action.

Katie Meyer’s parents are now suing Stanford University for wrongful death. They maintain that the university had acted negligently and recklessly in the way they handled her disciplinary case. According to the Washington Post:

“Stanford’s after-hours disciplinary charge, and the reckless nature and manner of submission to Katie, caused Katie to suffer an acute stress reaction that impulsively led to her suicide,” said the complaint, filed last week in Santa Clara County Superior Court. “Katie’s suicide was completed without planning and solely in response to the shocking and deeply distressing information she received from Stanford while alone in her room without any support or resources.”

For its part, Stanford University is vehemently denying responsibility for Katie Meyer’s death. In an official statement to the Stanford community, university officials wrote:

The Stanford community continues to grieve Katie’s tragic death and we sympathize with her family for the unimaginable pain that Katie’s passing has caused them. However, we strongly disagree with any assertion that the university is responsible for her death. The complaint brought by the Meyer family unfortunately contains allegations that are false and misleading.

I don’t pretend to know what actually happened in this situation. The description of the coffee spilling incident is not very well explained in the article. Did she go up and hurl a cup of hot coffee at the football player while he was kissing Katie’s teammate? Or was she carrying a Starbucks while riding a bike and hit a bump in the road, causing it to fly from her hands? I can’t tell from the description in the newspaper article. However, whatever actually occurred with the football player, I do know that it should not have led a 22 year old woman with a very bright future to kill herself. I am so sorry for Katie’s parents and other friends and loved ones. But I’m not sure that the university is necessarily at fault, either. I would imagine that most people would not have reacted in such an extreme way to that email.

Extremely competitive universities like Stanford University do attract the best and brightest, and a lot of those students are extreme perfectionists, perhaps even to a pathological level. Maybe at a school like Stanford, it makes sense to be very careful about delivering that kind of bad news– the kind that might threaten a highly achieving young person’s future. However, Katie was 22 years old, which made her a grown woman. She was about to embark on a career in law. I would imagine that she would face some pretty threatening and stressful challenges in that arena, too. It sounds to me like Katie really needed mental health treatment. Perhaps the bigger question is, does Stanford University support and encourage students to seek out mental health services when they need them? Do they try not to penalize students for seeking help when they need it?

This is a topic near and dear to me, because my husband has spent most of his adult life in the military, in which a lot of lip service is paid about people seeking mental healthcare when they need it. However, those who do go to therapy and take medication often wind up being penalized when they lose security clearances or get reassigned to jobs that mess up their career aspirations. A lot of tragedies have occurred because of this policy, that punishes people for seeking help. Hell, in the military, a servicemember can wind up being “punished” even if a family member needs special services for their mental health or educational needs. See my rant about EFMP for more on that.

More recently, I read a Washington Post article about students at Yale University who were kicked out of school for having mental health issues. One student, Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, had a very hard time dealing with attending Yale during the pandemic. She needed help, but instead was driven to suicide. The article highlighted other stories of high achieving students being forced to withdraw from Yale after they needed psychiatric care. Some of those students did go on to kill themselves, because they felt like they’d failed and Yale simply wanted to “get rid of them”. Yale University also famously falsely accused a young woman of having an eating disorder and threatened to kick her out of school because she couldn’t gain two pounds. I wrote about Frances Chan, the “fake” anorexic, in my old blog, and since her story is relevant to this post, I will repost my 2014 article about her case today.

Anyway… I think it’s very sad that there’s a population of very bright, promising, young people who feel so overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed that they can no longer bear to go on. I thought it was hard enough in the 90s, when I was staring down the rest of my life, wondering what was going to become of me. At 22, I should have been on the brink of the best time in my life. But instead, I was scared, anxious, depressed, and occasionally suicidal. I feel fortunate that I managed to get through that time. I realize that not everyone can do what I managed to do. They lack the time, the money, the will, or they simply feel like they aren’t deserving. Some of them feel like they should be able to get over mental health issues by themselves. They’ve been taught that they have to be superhuman. But no one is superhuman.

It’s time that Americans stopped stigmatizing people who have mental health issues, especially when they are among the best and brightest. It’s time treatment for mental healthcare was prioritized, and made easy to afford and access. It’s time we stopped ruining people’s lives– or making them think their lives are ruined– simply because they made a mistake or got in some trouble or experience a temporary lapse in mental health due to stress, physical illness, or some other minor setback.

Life shouldn’t be so serious… or so hard, especially for young men and women on the brink of adulthood. No one should ever die over spilt coffee.

My condolences to Katie Meyer’s friends and family members. She sounds like she was an extraordinary person.

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