Clackamas Community College student hopes to prevent suicides
"Three times I medically died," said Michael Doust, recounting a catastrophic internal bleed-out he suffered in May 2018.
The Clackamas Community College student is no stranger to medical crises — he survived a suicide attempt in 2010 and liver failure in 2017.
But when he finally regained full consciousness after the incident in 2018, he saw the hospital chaplain standing by his bedside.
Doust asked her why he had survived, and she told him he was asking the wrong question.
Instead of asking why he had survived, she said, the right question might be what Doust was going to do with the gift of time he had been given.
He couldn't get that question out of his mind, and that eventually led Doust to propose "From the Darkness," a student-generated and student-led program to address suicide.
Last November, Doust told his story in an article in the Clackamas Print, CCC's student newspaper. Now, Doust and the student newspaper are allowing the Clackamas Review/Oregon City News to republish the article.
"My goal is to keep this outreach program going, and I'll be more of a spokesperson. The students are the ones to come up with the program," he said.
By allowing his story to be told in a community newspaper, Doust hopes CCC will hear from students from other schools who might want him to come and talk to their student body, or who might want to develop a program at their own schools.
The reason Doust is so adamant about the program being student-led is because it is the students who know when their friends or classmates are in trouble and contemplating suicide.
"The counselors know what to do (to help those in trouble), but they don't know who needs help; the students know who," he said.
"We need to empower them with a program that lets them know it's OK to say something," Doust added.
The goal of the program is not to turn students into counselors, but to let them know they have the power to ask friends whether they're OK.
"The counseling department (at CCC) wants to do a one-credit class to inform students who to talk to if a friend is in crisis," Doust said.
"Addressing suicide is extremely important because a lot of people are suffering in silence," said Stephanie Schaefer, clinical psychologist and retention counselor at CCC.
"There is an immense stigma about talking about suicide, and many fear that by talking about suicide with someone they might end up causing them to attempt suicide. This a harmful myth. When people are struggling, taking the time to ask if they're OK and help them find the right kind of help is crucial," she said.
"The stigma surrounding suicide tends to lead people to keep quiet when they're struggling. Simply asking if they're OK can be a first step that allows them to acknowledge they aren't actually OK and they need some help," Schaefer said.
"Having an effort that is led by students says to our students, our college community and the larger community that it is OK to talk about these issues and that help is out there," she said.
"It also makes suicide something that is real for our students, not just a theoretical experience the counseling department mentions."
Schaefer encourages anyone interested in being part of putting together this program to contact her or her colleague Ester Sexton, or reach out to CCC's Associated Student Government officers.
When the article was published in the Clackamas Print, Doust said he received many positive comments and was proud of the student newspaper for having the courage to print his story.
He added, "A lot of instructors thanked me for putting this out there. If the old guy can talk about it, maybe the kids will, too."
Break the silence
To contact CCC's Associated Student Government officers, visit clackamas.edu/campus-life/student-involvement/student-government.
Clackamas Print interview with Michael Doust
Q: What is the project you're here to speak about?
A: This is a student suicide outreach and awareness project. I envision some kind of a project where the students have taken ownership of how they're going to reach out to other students, how they're going to deal with it, and give them the empowerment to speak about the "s" word, and to actually use it.
Q: Do you feel like our counselors are effectively handling the issue, or is there more that can be done, and this program will segue into better care for these students?
A: I think our counselors handle this issue great. I've seen them professionally several times, but the problem is they don't know who and where the trouble is. That's what I want to try to work with the students on so that when the students see something, then there's a mechanism — some kind of a pathway that they can follow to the counseling department, or something and say 'Hey, my friend has changed and I'm worried about them,' because this notion of someone committing suicide and everyone saying they could have called the crisis line, or they could have done this, they could have done that — it's too late for that. They'd already decided that they were going to do it because when I attempted suicide in 2010, I really, looking back, realized that the trouble was that I was at total peace with that choice. At that point I didn't care about calling that suicide line, or the county help, or anyone. I wasn't going to call anybody, I had already made the choice and was at peace with that. So now it was just a matter of getting the pills and the vodka. And that's what I see. We all want to feel good so we say, 'Well, we had this program, this person fell through the cracks,' or 'This person, every person was a unique case.' There's an excuse. We give ourselves an excuse. 'Well, he could have gone to the counselor, he could have called the crisis hotline.' When you're ready to commit suicide that's not where your head is. If your head was there, you wouldn't be ready to commit suicide.
Q: Would you say it's fair to say that your mission with this program is to educate others on the signs and symptoms of somebody that has gotten so far past the point of seeking out help for themselves that you can offer them that help?
A: Not that I can do it, but that if you see somebody, your friend, and you've had some kind of introductory training perhaps, or however CCC — the student body — wants to set it up, that's what I want to see. I want to see the program written and developed by the student body so that way if you see something on social media that your friend posted that just didn't sound right, that way you can send a text, to the counseling department anonymously, or however it's set up, however it works for the situation of that student so there's no refrigerator magnet — one-size-fits-all type of thing, This way the students are empowered — it's the student's thing. They're the ones that write it. They're the only ones that know where the other kids are that are in trouble. Because I don't know that, you know? My generation, we read a text and we would just go 'well I just don't know what these people are talking about' and you guys would read the same text and say 'you know, that doesn't sound right.' The only people that can solve it is the new generation — you guys, people your age.
Q: What would you say are some signs and symptoms — things that students can be looking out for before they even receive this training?
A: A change that doesn't seem right, it's a feeling kind of thing. You can't just read like a 10-point chart and say 'where are you on this chart?' If all of the sudden your best friend who's always happy is over time not smiling anymore, or they don't want to go out anymore — there might be that there's some family problems, or their dog died, you don't know — but you notice that and will probably be one of the only people to notice that and they might be reaching out to you through that mechanism, by sharing with you their feelings that no one wants to talk about so that then you can go in at least and you would feel comfortable enough taking them aside and asking, 'Are you OK, are you really OK?'
Q: How do you approach that subject with somebody that you love and care about? You said it's not a topic anyone wants to talk about, what's a sensitive way you can approach this topic with someone?
A: I think it depends on the person. The person that you're talking to, and the person it's coming from. If the person's your best friend and you're really comfortable with them, you might just walk up and say, 'Hey, what's going on?' If it's someone you kind of know, or someone you know is someone that's sensitive, you don't want to make it worse, so you might just say, 'Hey, let's go over here and chat with so-and-so.' But the whole idea is that the students are reassured by staff, by everybody that you guys are supported when you go to help somebody. (So) that it's not the staff's job to help, it's the staff's job to support you to help that person and provide that mechanism — could be social media, could be texts, or 3-by-5 cards that you drop in a box or something, anything. We gotta do something. We can't just sit around and read about somebody in the paper.
Q: Is it fair to say that our reactivity instead of our proactivity to suicide is the problem?
A: I think it's human nature. There's just some things we don't want to talk about. We don't want to talk about suicide, we don't want to talk about substance abuse. We don't want to talk about PTSD, we don't want to talk about the fact that Uncle Joe attempted suicide or that he's got trouble since he came back from the war. I think there's a part of human nature there that makes us not want to talk about a lot of things and that's not being fair to others. Somebody out there gets hurt.
Q: If somebody has approached a friend about this and they feel like the situation hasn't been neutralized, or is rather escalating, what resources are out there for those students trying to help others?
A: The best thing they can do, I would say, is to just go directly to the counseling office. Don't even make an appointment, track down Stephanie, or Esther, anyone in the counseling office and say it's really important and 'I think this is a problem.' Not just, 'I noticed this, can I get some help, I need some advice,' but, 'my best friend has really changed and we really need you.' They know how to approach that person, and what to look for. They might solicit your help, and ask you to keep your eye on them while they look into it, but if something changes, you call 911. You're then empowered to do that.
Q: Do you think there's a stigma surrounding seeking help from counseling? Do you think that's a factor in why people, specifically those considering suicide, don't go to counseling?
A: I think there's a lot of social stigma. They don't want to talk about it, especially students because they think 'oh it might affect my grades,' or 'it might make it worse' or 'my friends might think I'm nuts so I don't want to talk about it.' You know, there's a lot of social pressure there. If we could eliminate that, or start to chip away at that across the board until it all goes away so that it becomes normal, then the person that might be heading into trouble or harm's way might feel comfortable saying, 'Oh, I can go talk to my friend Victoria; she'd understand.'
Q: Was there a singular event or was it in coming to CCC that inspired you to spearhead this project?
A: There were several events. I attempted suicide in June of 2010, then November of last year, because I spent my life drinking heavily. I got sick. My sister took me up to the veterans hospital, I checked myself into the emergency room and within four hours they had me in a private room. I had three doctors standing around — this was little over a year now — they told me I had four days and I'd never walk out of that room alive. My liver had failed. It was gone. Shot. So that was my last drink. That was over a year ago now. So that definitely changed the way I was looking at things. Then last May, I was up at the VA just dropping some papers off and I started to feel not right, so I went to the emergency room and I said 'I don't feel right, something's wrong.' and they said what do you think it is, and I said 'I don't know, but something's wrong. It's not the flu, it's not a tummy ache, there's something wrong.' So they looked at my chart and they saw my history, that I ended up there a lot with my liver issues, so they said, 'Well, we're not going to take any chances, we need to find out (what's wrong.)'
So I was in the room with the nurse — she was going through the questions, blood pressure check and everything, and I told her — I looked at her and I said 'I think I'm going to be sick,' and she took out a plastic tub about 2 inches tall, 3 wide, she put that on the table and she said, 'Well, if you're gonna be sick, just throw up in that thing, don't worry about it.' I said OK, and I started to throw up, and I filled that thing full of blood, to the top. I had an artery or something that went around my stomach and liver, it had burst and I was hemorrhaging out of control. She saw that, and then I passed out. That's the last I remember for three days.
It took nine pints of blood to bring me back. I bled out. I was already dead. I was already in the emergency room, that's the only reason I came back like I did. I was in the hospital for a month — I was in a coma for a week and a half. Most of that was medically induced because there were so many things going on. I had a respiratory failure. They say that according to my chart, I died three times while I was under. So, when I got out of there, I started getting my head back. The chaplain had come in, I knew her, and she was already giving me last rites. As far as they're concerned, doctors still look at my chart today and say, 'We don't know how you got here that day, let alone how you survived it.' So one day when I was starting to get better and my head was starting to get to where I could think again, the chaplain came in and I was talking with her and I said to her, 'One of the things that's bothering me is,' I said, 'I survived that suicide thing, and I survived this,' and it was starting to come together how serious that was. I said, 'Do you think I'll ever be able to answer why I survived?' and she said, 'You may never get the answer to why you survived, but perhaps you're asking the wrong question. Instead of asking the question "why did you survive" the question might be "what are you going to do with the time you were given?"' And that's why the idea of the project I call 'From the Darkness' stepped out — I was allowed, despite all of the drinking and all of the trouble, I was allowed to come out of the darkness. Maybe this was why. It's been a ride.
Q: Do you hope this program will eventually spread outside of Clackamas?
A: I hope so, because the problem is everywhere, but Clackamas might be the place to say 'Hey, let's give this a try.' A different university could look at this and say, 'We like this and this and this and this, but we're going to change a little of this here,' so each university has their own version of the program. But then again, it's the students that do it. The students that own it.
Q: Do you think this is a project you'd want an organization to be attached to, like ASG?
A: If that's what it takes. If that's what the student body wants. If the student body doesn't want ASG involved, it's up to them — whether they have a working committee — however they want to do it. However it works for this group. I think the program should vary from campus to campus because otherwise you fall right back into the 'we're just going to take their program and put our letterhead on it,' and then it just becomes watered-down, exercising bureaucracy again.
Q: What kind of framework or steps, or outline do you have for this project? What is your ultimate vision for this?
A: My vision would be that in the end there would be some kind of mechanism and it would be through some basic training and be a way to communicate and allow the students to feel comfortable going to a counselor and saying 'My friend is not acting right,' or 'there's a problem.' If I'd been left alone I might have committed suicide, but I'm glad someone stepped in.' It might take a while, and my role isn't to run it. My role would be to sit down for those who want to, and I could tell them my story and it took me a lot of courage to say that, but it was worth it, and it's worth it for you too. You guys have your whole life ahead of you.
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