Jack Park is a Korean international student at UPenn in Philadelphia, PA. He made waves last year when, after three of his fellow students died by suicide, he offered up his time (and his phone number) to anyone who needed to talk. He got calls from all around the country. Read more about it here. He was 20 when I interviewed him in Brooklyn, NY, on March 29, 2014.
I came to the United States for college. Freshman year, I did normal college kid stuff—parties, school, tests, and I joined Penn Band. There’s a football team, there’s cheerleaders, and there’s a band we’re doing goofy stuff. During halftime, we go out and make a formation with our bodies. I joined environmental club ‘cause I care about the environment, and I was taking regular classes. That’s the first semester of my freshman year, making new friends and stuff.
During the second semester of my freshman year, I didn’t have any depressive or bipolar tendencies at all, ‘cause I had a support system of friends and family. In high school I was staying with my parents and in high school you see everybody in your class and it’s a tight group, but college is—especially Penn—a big school, a very big institution, so you get to see some people, but they’re not there all the time. You just meet them for class.
So, I did have a group of supportive friends, but I was starting to get really, really depressed—like, a lot—‘cause I just started to see the world in a very negative way all the time. I started to feel like everybody was judging me and everybody was hating me. Nobody was loving me and I was alone in this struggle and nobody could help me. What else? What else was I thinking? Oh, something like, even if I disappeared, nobody would give a shit—that type of mentality. There was a very slow process of my depressive disorder kind of growing and growing, like cancer inside me.
Meanwhile, the entire goal of my life was to get into an Ivy League school—school kind of defines who you are, especially in Asian countries, a little bit more than others. I was trying to get into an elite institution from middle school ‘til my senior year of high school. So I would work my ass off. I was top 5% of my class because I worked my ass off and had no life. One time, there was this woman—there was this girl—and we had a thing, but then I thought about it and I politely refused a relationship because I was really, really determined to focus my attention on academics. That was my top priority, so I made a lot of sacrifices, you know? I studied during Christmas Eve, during Christmas, during New Year’s.
In Korea, there’s this thing called Hagwon. It’s like an afterschool school, so there’s school, and after that they go to this Hagwon. It’s additional schooling, so they learn more stuff and prepare for more tests, ‘cause it’s very competitive. Korea’s super small and there are a lot of people, so the only way to succeed is through your education. They’re all studying their asses off and working their asses off for adults. It’s a very competitive, cutthroat society.
I really wanted to get into this elite institution and fortunately, God bless, I got in. If I didn’t, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I tried all this and I sacrificed everything—a woman, my life, social life, but I didn’t get into an Ivy League school.’ But I did, fortunately. I think it was God’s mercy...
I got into an Ivy League school, so that was like, Objective 1 cleared, right? There was nothing in this world I wanted to do yet and I was looking for my Objective 2. So, I’m okay. So, like, I’m in college, like many other kids in their early 20s. I’m trying to figure out my life. Like, what do I do? And then I’m deciding majors and I’m deciding courses. Deciding what to sign up for in college, so I went from environmental studies as my first major and then to biology (like a pre-med type of preparation) and then to economics for a pre-business type of education. But then I hated those kind of forced destinies. I was studying bio to become a doctor to have a stable living... I was like, what the fuck? Why am I chasing after something that is not permanent? I’m chasing after money and stability. Not even doctors are all stable. Doctors have to compete anyway, ‘cause there are other doctors...
I moved from major to major. There was no Objective 2—no clear Objective 2, other than to graduate. That was a clear objective, ‘cause you need a diploma to do stuff in this world. I guess not everything, but for many things, you need one.
So, I was looking for Objective 2, and my thought process was something like this at the moment: There is a lot of bad stuff in this world, lots of tragedies, right? There’s poverty, homelessness, rape, murder. There are lots of good things, but there are lots of horrible things. There are planes crashing. There are bridges collapsing. Horrible tragedies. I was kind of a Christian but not really. I didn’t really fully believe. I just went to church in high school because there was this attractive girl and I wanted to see her a little bit more, so I followed her to church. Then she didn’t come to church for a while, but I started to go by myself, ‘cause I liked sermons... but besides that, I wasn’t a full-hearted kind of Christian. My question to a god was: Why did you make such horrible sufferings in this world in the first place? Why? Why did you make depression, or why did you make all these sufferings?
...I was basically living in this world full of selfish people. I guess not really my parents, ‘cause my parents kind of take care of me selflessly ‘cause they love me. I think love is something that could be defined as doing something that is not of self-interest. You do it just ‘cause you want to take care of somebody else. You would go out of your way to do something for that person. That’s love. There is love in this world, parental love, friendship love. There’s man to woman—eros—love, and on a large scale, there’s a creator to a subject—agape—love. There’s all kinds of love, but I wasn’t feeling any of that because I felt alone all the time with my condition.
I would say something like, “Oh, I have all these thoughts. Why is the world is horrible and it seems like nobody gives a fuck?”
And then kids at University of Pennsylvania, ‘cause they all have tests to study for, classes to go to, were like, “Oh yeah, yeah, that’s great. Let’s talk later,” and they would go to their class and then just study and not really listen to, let’s say, more than 30 minutes to an hour, ‘cause they’re all busy people. It’s not like busy-ness is an evil, but if you’re busy enough to not give a shit about your friend, that’s kind of a problem, right? So I was feeling like that for, I’d say, a month. It didn’t happen all of a sudden, but it was a gradual growth in depressive thoughts. After that, I attempted to kill myself in my dorm room and, as you can probably tell, I succeeded in, well, failing.
Des: Continuing to live.
Jack: Yes. Yes, so I’m here... I’m alive, and so I called my parents up because, at that time, I was really sad. I was the most depressed person you could think of, times ten. I was really depressed, so I didn’t talk to anybody. I just stayed in my room and tried to hurt myself. All these things that lots of depressed people do on a daily basis.
Out of desperation, I called my dad, who was in Korea. My dad’s a doctor and he’s a surgeon, but he has some knowledge of clinical psychology ‘cause he has clinical psychology friends out of med school. I called him, like, “Oh my gosh, Dad, I just tried something really dangerous two times. I don’t know what I’m doing and there seems to be nobody who is going to help me. I’m not going to classes. I’m not eating. I’m not sleeping. What do I do?”
My dad was like a very, very supportive and loving father, and he still is, and he told me, “Okay, son, just don’t worry about anything. Stay in your room and start to eat, even though you don’t feel like eating ‘cause it’s purposeless. Maybe take a walk or something. Don’t go to class. It’s okay, and everything will be fine.” He just wanted to comfort me on the phone.
After that phone call, I was like, 'Okay, maybe things will be okay,' and then I wandered around like I was out of my mind. I just tried to kill myself in my room, right? It wasn’t my will. It was almost like there was this second voice trying to tell me things, what to do...
After that phone call, they didn’t tell me this, but my parents came to Philadelphia. They flew over and I was like, “Oh fuck, I’m in some deep shit now.”
I was supposed to be succeeding in college and making new friends, but I wasn't making new friends. I wasn't even talking to my friends. [I was supposed to be] enjoying college, parties. And succeeding in school and in life in general, ‘cause I go to an Ivy League, like, 'Oh, my life is beautiful!' But no, my life was not beautiful.
My parents came in and there were lots of things happening in between, but they basically forced me to take a leave of absence. They dragged me back to Korea ‘cause, you know, if I were a parent and my son called me up and then he told me that he tried to kill himself, I would be like, “Oh damn,” and then I would try my best to address what’s going on.
So my parents did. I really love them and they really love me. I owe them my life, literally, for this, ‘cause they showed me so much love. They took me back to Korea. I saw this clinician. She does therapy and then she gives you medicine. I went there once a week secretly, ‘cause in Korea, depression and mental health in general is very stigmatized. I kept it a secret for two years, until now, I guess. I went there every week, but I didn’t come out of my room. My room’s this size in Korea—in Seoul, Korea, the capital. I didn’t come out of my room for three months, ‘cause I was really scared of the world and everyone in the world, ‘cause people talk and people gossip and people make rumors. I basically kind of disappeared out of college, online. There’s Facebook, and people would post things—some kind of mean friends would post things like, “Where the fuck are you?” When I’m really depressed, that’s really hurtful, right? And they’re not really necessarily trying to help you.
They were just kind of like, pointing fingers at you, like, “Oh, there’s this guy who got into an Ivy League school, but he couldn’t handle school, so maybe he’s back in Korea again,” something like that. There were a lot of crazy rumors which I can’t even count, but it happened, so what can I do?
I was really locked up in my own little prison. It was like a cell. This is almost the size of my room and there’s like a mental cell that I created for myself. I was basically trying to forget about the world, so I started to sleep abnormal amounts of hours. I started to sleep 17 hours a day. That’s crazy, right? It’s not normal... I would wake up and I didn’t want to think about me or the world, so I would just watch TV, ‘cause when you’re watching a show you kind of get absorbed in the TV series, right? I watched a lot of TV to forget about myself and the world, ‘cause the world is fucked up and I’m fucked up. I wanted to forget about that...
During this three-month process, my dad had to work. My dad is a doctor and he has a clinic, so without him, the clinic doesn’t run, right? He’s a doctor, so he has to go to work. So, he was at work, and my mom—you know, my mom has a life. She has things to do, people to meet, lunches to have outside and stuff. She is a stay-at-home mother, but she's not a stay-at-home-all-the-time type of mother, ‘cause she goes outside. But she stayed inside for three months right next to me because I might do it again, right? If I’m left by myself, I might try to do it again in the room. I tried two times, so it’s likely that it’s gonna happen sometime later. And my mom is really risk averse, so she took the extreme strategy of staying next to me and keeping an eye on me. I’d be there and she’d just kind of sit here. We didn’t really talk, ‘cause I was depressed, but she’d just sit there and maybe read or something. She would give me food three times a day, ‘cause she loves me and she wanted me to live.
I was really depressed and sad and emotionally not doing well, so I was like, "No, I don’t want to eat. There’s no purpose in eating. What’s gonna happen if I don’t eat?" I wanted to die, basically, but, she kind of like force fed me. I was like, “No,” and then like, “Aw crud, I’m eating.”
There were lots of fun little episodes.
My dad likes exercising. He’s a triathlete, so he likes to ride the bicycle, run and swim. He would take me out to a local mountain. Then we’d kind of jog for a bit. This is way later, after I got better. It was a long process. I thought it was never gonna end, but I thankfully got out of depression. I think. I’m pretty sure, ‘cause I’m talking about it in an interview. So yeah, he would take me up to a mountain and I would jog. As we were going up the mountain, there were little places where you could [stop to] see and then have a drink of water or something.
We’re at the base of the mountain, and he would say something like, “Son, this is your teenage years.”
I was like, “What are you talking about, Dad? That doesn’t make any sense."
Then he would run a little bit higher up the mountain and say, “Son, this is your twenties.”
I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
Then we would run up [further] and, “Son, this is your thirties.”
It goes on like this: “This is your forties, this is your fifties.”
I was like, “What are you talking about? I see a pattern here. It’s a ten-year gap, but what does this mean?”
And then my dad would say something like, “Okay, notice how you see more of the world as you grow up?” Basically, he was telling me life is worth living, ‘cause you will get to experience more and you’ll become stronger after struggles, and you will get to see more perspectives as you grow older and wiser. That was the message.
But at the moment, I was like, “What the fuck? This is some lame Confucius shit."
I wanted to get my life back together and I started to look for that Objective 2. I thought, 'Okay, I’m back in the same place. I still have the same GPA, ‘cause I left school. There’s still that Objective 2 I have to find. What do I do?' I thought to myself that me being a survivor is like a miracle, ‘cause I thought there was no scientific way of me living... That’s impossible. I guess you could find it if you really looked deep into the medical evidence or something, but still, there’s lots of things in this world that science can’t explain. I thought, 'There’s gotta be something spiritual.'
People usually go to church for answers, and I was lost, so I went to a church. I started praying by myself and I started to read the bible, ‘cause I was looking for that Objective 2: what do I do with my life?
After I did that for some time, I talked to pastors and asked, “Pastor, what do I do?”
I started to feel like I should go back to college. I was seeing a lot of depressed kids in college, and it’s not just me. It’s a lot—I think suicide’s the [third] leading cause of death for college kids. That’s not an insignificant phenomenon. It’s a hugely growing problem.
I thought, ‘Okay, I have this experience. I was depressed and now I’m able to talk about it ‘cause I’m not depressed anymore. Maybe I should go back to school, ‘cause that’s where the vulnerable population is, and I am a student. They’re more likely to talk to a student than a scary clinical psychologist or an admin of the school, a dean or something.’
So I decided to crawl back to college. I applied to request the return. It’s supposed to be a year, but I returned in a semester, so I had to apply again. Fortunately I made it in, so my normal college days began again. I wasn't depressed anymore, so [I went back to] classes, assignments, projects, maybe doing some extracurricular here and there. I breakdance, so I rejoined my crew. My crew are chill people and then, hip hop love, you know? There’s no judging, respect everywhere. Lots of good things happened.
And then something crazy happened. This winter, University of Pennsylvania had three student suicides, and that is an incredibly large number. That’s basically a group cluster suicide. And it hits. It hit Cornell. It hit NYU... Basically, these things happen in clusters. When somebody [dies by suicide], then everybody around, the social circle is prone to depression, as well. His or her family members and friends and professors—everyone—‘cause they’re thinking, ‘Oh, what could I have done better? I guess I’m a horrible person to not notice this in the first place.’
...So there’s like a headline like, “University of Pennsylvania Student Jumps Off Parking Lot Garage in Center City Philadelphia.”
My friends and friends of friends read this, and a response I would expect would be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so horrible. What happened to her?”
But some people were saying, “Huh, I wonder what the headline would be if I do the same?”
That’s a very depressed person’s response to the headline, right? So there’s this problem: the campus seems to be a little bit down, and I know how it feels, ‘cause I was really, really sad for a long time, and I wanted to help. What could I do to help?
...I thought about what I could do in this big picture problem of the depression. Then I prayed a lot, ‘cause I pray for guidance. I would go to a church and then I would pray, “What should I do? What should I do, Jesus?” You don’t really hear back from Jesus, right? It’s not like, “Do this.” You don’t hear it so, oh my gosh, I didn’t know what to do.
That happened for some time and I went to this retreat... The guest speaker’s name was Dan Bowman, and he talked about being imprisoned in Iran for some faulty charges. He was locked in a cell for a long time. He also tried to kill himself, ‘cause living was miserable and he didn’t know when he was going to get out. I guess kind of like me but mine was a symbolic jail. It wasn’t actual jail, but yeah, he tried to get out of the situation by killing himself.
His testimony was that when he tried to kill himself, he lived... Then he claims that he saw a shining light. He was saying that Jesus was the light, and it told him, "No, you have hope," or, “I’m here for you,” or something like that. I can’t remember the exact sermon, but that was like strikingly similar, right? That was what kind of happened to me. I tried to kill myself and I [lived]. It was a sermon, so he quoted a lot of bible verses, and the bible verses were sticking in my head.
After the sermon, I found Dan on the side of the stage, and I was like, “Dan, I have this testimony of how things happened to me and I got better, but I’m really afraid to share it with other people ‘cause I think people will judge me. Even my own brother doesn’t know about this.”
He was like, “Hmm.” He was thinking, and then he said, “I don’t know, Jack. What do you want? I’m not Jesus. I can’t tell you the answer.”
I was like, “You’re right. You’re definitely not Jesus, but you’re a pastor. I thought you would know the answer, but I guess not.”
Then we prayed together. He was a very casual person. He was like, “Jesus, please help him find his answer. Please guide him, like you did me.”
After that, I was like, "Oh my gosh, it’s all the same. There’s no answer. What do I do?"
One of the verses was Mark 5:19, and Mark 5:19 says, "Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
[There's this person who] was possessed by a demon or something. I think the demon, back then, referred to mental illnesses, ‘cause it’s kind of like a demon telling me to kill myself. So there’s this guy who has a mental condition, probably schizophrenia or bipolar, ‘cause people like that existed back in the day too. People saw it as demon possession. Jesus comes and heals the guy with the mental disorder, and then the guy with the mental disorder wants to follow Jesus. Jesus is kind of like, 'Oh no, not so fast,' and tells the guy with the mental disorder, “Go back to your village and tell your friends about what I did to you.”
I was like, "Oh damn, [that's kind of like me]. I guess I should tell other people about it." After that, I wanted to follow the Bible, ‘cause it’s a way of life, you know? Living humbly, loving, sharing your testimony, ‘cause I guess that’s important. After that, I started to share my story and lots of things happened. I felt like Jesus told me to share it.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Jack: Oh, hell no. That’s funny, ‘cause I said 'hell,' and the thing is, I’m probably most likely not going to go to hell, 'cause I’m believing fully in Christ. I’m trying to live the best day—no, to the best of my ability every day to follow Jesus, follow the Bible. So most likely—this is a guess—but if I do actually die sooner than I expect, then I hope I get to heaven.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
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