Leadership & Governance

Discussing Past Suicide Attempts, Cincinnati President Aims to Lessen Stigma

May 24, 2016

Lisa Ventre
Santa Ono, president of the U. of Cincinnati: "I felt a great weight lifting off of my shoulders in, for the first time, really talking about my own battles with mental illness and my own suicide attempts. It was not planned; it was very spontaneous."
Santa J. Ono, president of the University of Cincinnati, made some strikingly candid remarks at a mental-health fund-raising event on Saturday night, telling an audience that he had attempted suicide on two separate occasions, first in his teens and again in his late 20s.

Mr. Ono spoke to about 200 people at the event, which was organized by 1N5, a group named to denote the one in five teenagers with mental-health conditions. Concerns about suicide, which permeate college campuses across the nation, have been particularly pronounced at Cincinnati, where a student hanged himself in 2014.

Mr. Ono spoke to The Chronicle on Monday about his decision to openly discuss his past battles with mental illness. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. You made a decision to tell a fund-raising audience something very personal about yourself and then you tweeted it to your significant following on social media of more than 70,000 people. What brought you to this decision to speak so publicly about attempts to take your own life?

A. Before I go to an event such as this I have an outline of what I might say, and there was nothing in there about my own personal struggles. There were some comments that I was going to make about my younger brother, Ken Ono, who is a mathematician at Emory University.

He’s just published a book, My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count, and it parallels his life to that of a great Indian mathematician. In that book, my younger brother talks about a situation in his life where he was struggling with feelings of inadequacy as a young professor, and on a rainy day he almost drove his car into an 18-wheeler. He swerved at the last moment onto the side of the road.

So I was going to talk a little bit about my brother because he has been public about his own suicide attempt, and I was going to leave it at that. But since the whole event was focused on breaking the silence and destigmatizing struggles that many people have, I decided that it was only appropriate for me to talk about my own struggles as well.

I felt a great weight lifting off of my shoulders in, for the first time, really talking about my own battles with mental illness and my own suicide attempts. It was not planned; it was very spontaneous.

I have over 70,000 followers on Twitter, and I felt if I was really going to be committed to breaking the silence, I had an unusual opportunity to do so by making a set of comments on Twitter.

Q. How big a secret would you say this was before this past weekend? Did many people know?

A. It’s not a complete secret. I had confided in some members of the administration here, and certainly I had spoken to a few very close friends and people who were with me as I was struggling earlier in my life. So it wasn’t a complete secret, but it wasn’t something that I spoke about widely.

Q. Most college presidents and chief executives aren’t known for talking publicly about battling with depression. You’re being celebrated for being open in this way, but is it reasonable for high-profile people to worry about discussing mental illness?

A. I’ve been symptom-free for 25 years or more. I wouldn’t have spoken about this earlier in my life. The reason I can do so now is that I’m speaking from a position of strength. I have demonstrated that not only am I fully functioning, but I can really thrive in my current position.

If anyone can speak about struggles, it should be someone like myself who is coming from a position of strength. I had really no concerns about speaking about my personal struggles. This is something that affects at least one in five; in certain professions, it could be one in three individuals. So I’m nothing special.

Q. Did you prepare any members of your board for this?

A. I did not. It was very, very spontaneous.

Q. But the feedback from them and others has been positive?

A. I would say almost unanimously all of the feedback I’ve gotten — not only from board members, but also politicians at the city, state, and federal level, colleagues at other institutions, members of the public, students and faculty — almost unanimously have been very supportive. People are grateful that I’ve spoken about something that has been hidden for far too long.

Q. You attempted suicide twice, you said, once when you were 14 and again in your late 20s. Where were you in your life when this happened?

A. I was at very different points in terms of my personal development and my comfort with who I am. And I was at different stages with respect to dealing with frustrations or anxieties.

“If anyone can speak about struggles, it should be someone like myself who is coming from a position of strength.”
I’d rather not really get into specifics about the suicide attempts, because they are deeply personal and difficult to speak about. But at the age of 14, the reason why I made an attempt on my own life was really feelings of inadequacy and concerns about my own academic performance as a young boy. Those were very difficult times for me as a young boy and that’s what led me to really having serious doubts about my future, and that’s why that happened at that time.

It’s something that is probably not that uncommon among teenagers.

At the University of Cincinnati, we know that there are increasing numbers of students who need mental-health counseling, and that’s nothing unique to the University of Cincinnati.

Hopefully the fact that I’ve spoken about my own challenges as a teenager will be liberating for youngsters that might be going through something similar. Hopefully it will encourage them to speak to supportive adults. Hopefully it will encourage students to be supportive of each other, and hopefully my speaking about it will encourage institutions and both local and federal governments to think about programs and policies that might support this growing problem in the United States.

Later in life, I was at a different stage as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The pressures then were focused on the fact that I was at a soft-money institution, and my salary and the operations of my laboratory were fully dependent on my receiving grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The funding level at that time was extremely low, and I was not successful in the first two attempts to receive an NIH grant. I was feeling tremendous pressure and anxiety at the time, and that was the background to my second attempt.

I didn’t have anybody to turn to when I was a teenager. There are much better support services available in schools and at colleges today, thank goodness. The way I made it through as a youngster was that I had very good friends that were there who took care of me in difficult times, but it would have been much easier if there were more counselors and more services available, as there are today. But we need even more, because it’s a growing problem.

“Hopefully the fact that I've spoken about my own challenges as a teenager will be liberating for youngsters that might be going through something similar.”
When I was an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, fortunately I actually went to the Sheppard Pratt hospital, in Baltimore, and received care from a psychologist and a psychiatrist there. Not only did I receive medication, but I also entered into psychotherapy sessions. The combination of that care was really pivotal in helping me work my way out of a very dark period in my life.

Q. You have spoken openly about that first attempt, which involved an effort to overdose on cold medicine and alcohol. Is that right?

A. Absolutely.

Q. And later in life, did you make a different type of attempt? You don’t need to discuss that if you don’t want to.

A. I’d rather not discuss that.

Q. It’s something of a stereotype to talk about the mental health of young Asian-Americans under tremendous pressure to succeed, but yet you seem to fall into that category. Is there anything we should extrapolate from that?

A. I wouldn’t exactly call it a stereotype. Mental illness and the risk of suicide is something that cuts across all ethnic groups and all age groups. But with that being said, there is some truth to the fact that there is increased pressure in certain ethnic groups — perhaps partially due to expectations for achievement, but also because in certain cultures it really is not encouraged for individuals to speak about anxieties or concerns to demonstrate any weakness.

One of the opportunities that is before us is to try to deal with that shame and to encourage individuals not to view normal everyday stresses that affect all of us as something that should be hidden. They should feel completely supported and encouraged to tap into the support services that exist at many higher-education institutions.

Q. You said that you’ve been symptom-free for 25 years. Are you comfortable discussing whether you still use medication or therapy?

A. After that time, there were a couple of instances where I did seek counseling. But I’m no longer on medication.

Q. What can higher education do better to deal with mental illness?

A. All universities and colleges should really review what they have in place for not only students, but the wellness of faculty and staff. I hope that something positive comes out about my speaking about my personal situation.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.