It’s my first spring in Albany, and the tulips have taken me by surprise. If you aren’t local, you may not know that hundreds of thousands of tulips are planted around the Capital Region and bloom just in time for the annual “Tulip Festival,” (next weekend) an occasion that earned Albany the title of “I Love New York Spring Destination.” In fact, the official flower of Albany is the “Orange Wonder,” a tulip mascot bestowed upon us by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (no, I’m not kidding, you can read more about this here). All of this is to say that I’m quickly learning how seriously Albany takes spring.
For most people, spring is associated with a burst of new life: pink petals pepper Delaware Avenue; baby ducklings waddle along the Mohawk-Hudson bike path; and daydreams of summer vacation interrupt work. Emotional wellness seems easier to maintain or achieve as the long daylight hours and beautiful weather afford us the opportunity and motivation to get outside and exercise, to socialize after work, or just to try something new.
For others, however, watching the trees bud and the skies brighten is an altogether different experience. Year after year, May brings with it an astounding spike in the rate of suicides among North Americans. For most people, this feels surprising or even unbelievable; after the long winter months you may be caught up in excitement about barbecues in Elm Avenue Town Park, swimming at Lake George, hiking in the Catskills, bird watching in your back yard, or simply not having to wear a coat! The idea that there is nothing to look forward to at a time when symbols of hope abound may be incomprehensible. If that rings true to you, you’re in good company. Scientists all over the world have been puzzling over this sudden drop in emotional wellness for years. Studies suggest vitamin D levels, inflammation, pollen, the “broken promise effect” of a wintry depression failing to lift with the weather, and even daylight savings as possible causes of this trend.
I learned about this phenomenon in April of last year as my small Vermont college was shaken by the death of a student, Nathan, who took his own life. As a peer crisis counselor I knew that Nathan had completed what an unusually high number of students would attempt over the 2015 spring semester. Discussions of how and why the emotional wellness of our peers had fallen so drastically permeated dining halls and classrooms as tests were canceled and emergency staff meetings were held. The feeling that we all could and should have done something weighed heavy on our shoulders. While I would steer people away from placing blame on themselves for the suicide of a peer, at the very least it feels appropriate for this type of crisis to draw our attention to the people suffering invisibly around us, and to motivate us to pay closer attention.
I spent much of last month thinking about what had happened at my college exactly a year earlier and wondering if people had made good on their promises to pay closer attention. Had I made good on that promise?
As orange and gold and ruby tulips popped up throughout April, cheering up my normally dreary drive to work, I found myself wondering what these traditional symbols of joy and new life mean to those who are suffering with suicidal thoughts. While that seems like a heavy question for a morning commute, this type of exercise actually forces you to take on the perspective of someone else and builds empathy, a skill that research shows may increase social connectedness in your environment. And, “social connectedness,” promoted as a public health strategy for communities with mental health crises and a personal strategy for those struggling with their emotional wellness, really is just another way of saying “paying closer attention to the people around us.”
People all over Albany probably have many different reasons to thank the tulips (for brightening a divider on the highway, sprucing up a lawn, inspiring a city-wide festival). For me, these tulips brought an answer to a year of wondering what actionable steps are to be taken after a community loses someone to suicide. I am grateful to these weirdly ubiquitous buds for blooming just as the care and keeping of one another’s emotional wellness seems inexplicably at its most pressing. The tulips are everywhere, serving as colorful reminders of spring, a season when it is easy to forget that people around us may be suffering quietly. They remind me of the promises I made last spring: to pay closer attention; to smile at the woman behind me in the grocery store line; to ask how a friend is with the intent of really listening. I never thought I’d be thanking a flower, but these days every time I drive past a cluster of yellow and orange, I say a little thank you to the tulips for inspiring the short, pre-coffee, bleary-eyed moment that renewed my commitment to those suffering invisibly around us and reminded me to stay a little more connected all day long.