I was having a rather horrible day yesterday. By the time the mandatory meeting for new TAs rolled around, I was quite convinced that I wanted to quit science altogether or throw myself into traffic, or both. I was miserable but trying to put up a good front for the nice people I'd (mostly) never met before.
About halfway through the meeting, we reach the topic of Things TAs Don't Have to Worry About. Such as writing the lecture exams, cleaning up the lab (the students can put away their own microscopes), setting up all the lab materials etc. Someone mentions that a TA does not need to be a counselor to the students. Students have problems, they may want to talk about them, try to steer them to the counseling center unless you are (and we're not) trained counselors. The guy leading the meeting gave a few examples. "They may be fighting with roommates or have a traffic ticket or they're being stalked..."
At this point a professor whom I respect very highly laughed and made a very flip comment about students being suicidal.
I was horrified. It just happened to correspond with one of my own very rare days when I feel strongly that I don't want to exist any more. I mentally made a note to never discuss such things with this person, someone I've gone to before when I was in a tough spot, though that was more related to my education.
Am I overreacting? No, I do not think it goes with a professor's job description to counsel students on their personal lives. But students respect professors. They look up to them. I would be flattered if I was a professor and I student trusted me enough to confess suicidal ideation to me. I would direct them to better resources, but I would listen to them. I certainly wouldn't mock them later for it!
Suicide is a scary, scary thing. It is incredibly hard to tell someone else that you want to kill yourself. I forced myself to tell my fiance recently. I wanted him to realize how upset and trapped I felt, and I also wanted to protect myself. It really hurt him to hear that, and I know it would hurt him ten million times more if I actually tried it. This is someone I trust completely, and I could barely get the words out. How hard must it have been for that student? When your professor is the best person you can think of to confide in?
Perhaps the professor in this story was really uncomfortable with the incident, and laughing was her way of dispelling that feeling. But why did she bring it up? I doubt it was a recent occurance. No one said anything to her. We just moved on to the next topic.
Was she out of line? Or am I just being overly sensitive?
(As a disclaimer: I am seeing a therapist, have an appointment to get back on antidepressants, and have several phone numbers for suicide hotlines. I have never actually attempted suicide. If you are feeling suicidal, please please go talk to someone. Things can get better.)