Inspirational note from instructor helped guide student away from suicide!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/handwritten-note-by-vanessa-lam-university-mental-health.jpg

It was a simple, handwritten note.

Vanessa Lam, a Ph. D candidate at the University of Waterloo, wrote about 70 notes for students in her classes.

They each contained an inspirational quote, and Lam wished the students well: “I hope you enjoyed this class,” she wrote. “All the best in your future.”

There were a couple of cute stickers, one with a cat, another that said “nice job,” as well as Lam’s personal contact information in case students wanted to reach out. She also included a packet of tea.

As students left their 8:30 a.m. class, Lam invited them each to pick up a card on their way out.

One first-year arts student took the envelope and was eager to open it because it looked cute.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, This is really sweet,'” she said.

The quote in her card read: “When you feel like quitting, think about why you started.”

Then she teared up. The message affected her so deeply, she said, because she had contemplated suicide in the preceding weeks.

CBC is keeping the student’s name confidential, as guided by its journalistic standards and practices around suicide, and the potential harm to people who come forward on mental health issues.

Redditors reach out

“It got really bad at the end of March, the beginning of April. That morning, going into class was really difficult. I had a hard time kind of getting out of bed,” she said.

She’s struggled with being away from home and with the pressure to do well in her courses.

“It’s a short quote, but it kind of means a lot. When you’re in that state of mind, something small like that is kind of like, wow, maybe I should rethink all of this.”

The student anonymously posted the note on Reddit. Few people knew she had suicidal thoughts, the student told CBC. Her family knows she has depression, but she didn’t tell them how bad things had become the past two months.

Her family was unaware she’d thought about suicide and was still unaware when the student was interviewed by CBC. 

The Reddit post got attention. People reached out to the student through private messages to offer her support — including Lam, who knew when she saw the note online that it was among those she had given to her students. 

Notes meant to help 

Lam said she wrote the notes because she has struggled with her own mental health.

“I’ve been through the ringer when it comes to hospitalization and social services … I’ve just been through it,” she said. “If part of what I do helps somebody else through that very difficult time, then I’m very happy.”

She said the idea for the notes goes back several years to when she would think about how it would be nice if someone simply asked her how she was doing or did something to let her know they were thinking about her.

“I’ve brought that to my adult life, and I’m thinking, ‘What would students really care about? Or what would make them feel like their teacher is listening?’ So something like a note — it’s a small gesture and it’s nominally impressive, but it’s something that lets you know that somebody sat down, took the time to write this for you and cares about what’s going on in your life,” she said.

Vanessa Lam is a University of Waterloo Ph D candidate who also instructs some first and second year courses. On the last day of class this semester, she gave students handwritten notes to let them know they could reach out to her if they needed additional help with school or their mental health. (Vanessa Lam)

Lam has reconnected with this student and she said that reaction is why it’s important for her to reach out.

“As a person, we are supposed to take care of other people, and if somebody needs information that I have and that I can provide, then I’m absolutely going to do that,” she said.

“I don’t care if I’m not paid for it. I don’t care if it takes time out of my day. If it helps someone through their life, that’s what’s most important.”

The student is finishing up final projects and exams. She says she’s also receiving additional mental health support.

“I am in a better, healthier state of mind now than I was, like, a week ago,” she says.

She says she wasn’t anticipating the response the Reddit post received. And she wanted to share her story in hopes it could help others who may be feeling the same way.

“The state of mind I was in is something I don’t wish upon my worst enemy. And the thought of someone being in a similar state of mind that I was in pains me,” she said.

“The letter made me realize that there is hope and maybe life has more to offer than sadness and struggles.”