On Author Ned Vizzini, Suicide, and Learning to Ask for Help
I think I met Ned Vizzini, the essayist and young adult author who committed suicide last week, at least once during the mid to late ’90s. We went to different high schools, but kids at New York City schools like Stuyvesant (where Ned went) and Hunter (me) tended to run together. But it doesn’t matter if I met him in person—everyone knew who he was. He was writing for the New York Press! He shared space in a newspaper with George Tabb, Amy Sohn, Jim Knipfel—names that might not mean a lot to most people now, but who were heroes to young weirdos like my friends and me.
And Ned made it. It is an understatement to say that not everyone who dabbles in the arts in high school transitions to a successful career. My high school band certainly isn’t still together. But Ned took the ambition that had landed him in the Press and the Times magazine and nurtured it. That he did this while struggling more than others is clear to anyone who’s read his novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a fictionalized retelling of the 5 days he spent in a psychiatric hospital to address his suicidal depression.
Through that book, the movie that was based on it, and Ned’s outreach efforts to adolescents with depression, he turned a harrowing episode into a learning experience for himself and for others. In an undated interview at strengthofus.org, he was unequivocal in his advice for young people: “If you’re feeling suicidal, call a hotline. Suicidal ideation really is a medical emergency and if more people knew to call the suicide hotline we’d have less suicides.” He’s speaking from personal knowledge, and I have to believe that the young people who heard his message could feel the sincerity and the urgency.
Unfortunately, it seems that in the end he couldn’t fully take his own advice, and that shows how insidious the disease of depression is. He said something else in the interview about his hospitalization that is heartbreaking in hindsight. “More than anything else, I didn’t want to go back. I wanted it to be something that I learned from and the way I could prove that was by never returning.” I have to think that if he were giving advice to someone in need, he might say, “It’s OK to go back. It’s not OK to hurt yourself.”
One of the times I might have met Ned was when I went down to Stuyvesant to play a show with my band. We were one of the groups on the bill for “Gay Day,” an LGBT awareness event in the lobby. It’s touching that as teens we were so eager to be involved in social justice efforts, and it’s also incredible to see how far the LGBT community has come in just 15 years. The same can’t be said of mental health issues. Why did Ned Vizzini commit suicide? I don’t know. But that someone so clear about the risks of depression and how to get help could still fall prey to it surely means that something is wrong.