WRAL spoke with the mother and sister of a UNC graduate who took her own life five years ago.
The powerful words she left behind – along with her advocacy for mental health reform – are what her family says is her legacy.
One person dies from suicide every 40 seconds in the world. That’s 800,000 people a year and 800,000 families left behind. One UNC grad led a fight to beat the stigma of mental illness until she couldn’t fight any longer, but her words remain a testament to the battle.
“I miss everything about her. She was a goofy girl. She was so funny,” said Geetha Balagopal, reflecting on the memory of her daughter Priya Balagopal.
Priya was a vibrant soul, full of love, laughter and life. But in 2016, at just 24 years old, she came to a breaking point.
“It’s said that people who choose to take their own lives are selfish. That they aren’t thinking of the ones they’re leaving behind. The truth is, I’ve spent the last six years thinking about what I’d leave behind. More importantly, whom,” said Priya Balagopal in her final message to her family.
“I felt betrayed. I felt orphaned. I felt abandoned,” said Geetha.
Geetha was in disbelief reading the message her daughter left attached to a GoFundMe page she created for her family to help pay the medical bills and student loans she left behind.
“I felt immense guilt. I questioned my worth as a mother. What good am I if I couldn’t protect my child,” she said.
Until her very final hours, Priya worried about the financial burden she believed her lifelong mental health battle left on those she loved.
‘I didn’t want to abandon them. I didn’t want to burden them. But to be honest, I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of feeling like a prisoner in my own body. Like a spectator of my own life,” Priya wrote.
“She was about 15 when she came and told me she had OCD. And my response was ‘I think you have too much time on your hands. Just get busy.’ I didn’t take it seriously,” said Geetha.
It was an up-and-down battle of depression and anxiety that grew more difficult when she got to Chapel Hill. By that time, Priya had attempted suicide three times.
“That was such a powerless and helpless feeling because they took her handcuffed to a police car in the middle of the night to a psych facility. There was nothing I could do about it, said Geetha, recalling the first attempt.
“Trying to help your child while also trying to just find out everything that is bad about how people with mental health issues are treated. It’s horrible,” she said.
“Last I checked, the brain is a part of your body. Why should it be treated differently? Why should a person with mental illness be less than a human being? Why should they be treated like a criminal? They should not,” Geetha added.
In the midst of all the pain, Pryia was still a leader, a rape survivor and a voice for others at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“She was a high achiever. She was a tutor for middle school students. She was a volunteer for a suicide hotline, for a rape crisis center, for AmeriCorp, for dress for success. She was a public servant scholar. She was a national merit scholar. She was so proud of everything that she did and she’s so much more than somebody who took her life,” said Geetha.
“She was a huge advocate for mental health awareness herself. And dedicated her life to helping other people and it’s a cruel irony,” said Shalini.
Shalini always looked up to her older sister. Now she works to carry on her legacy.
“One thing that I definitely learned from Priya is you need to advocate for yourself,” said Shalini.
“I’m working really hard to make a better future for myself because I know that’s what she would want and I see the work that my mom is doing and it’s truly amazing,” Shalini added.
In light of a renewed focus on mental health amid recent suicides at UNC, Pryia’s mother and sister are sharing their story in hopes of bringing about change – increased resources, better policies and more accessible treatment.
“Her story is really heartbreaking but, it’s really eye-opening to know just because however you’re a part of the conversation about mental health, mental health issues are really multi-faceted and you don’t know how they are affecting people or at what level they are affecting people,” said Shalini.
“Even though it’s really hard to talk about her and share her story, if it could help a few people and prevent them from doing what she did, then she didn’t die in vain,” said Geetha.
“And I also want to give people like her a voice because they’re not here to speak,” she added.
Pryia’s mother said her family donated the funds raised on the GoFundMe from her daughter’s death to local mental health organizations.
Since sharing Priya’s story online, Geetha has been able to help dozens of families across the world connect to life-saving resources.
If you or anyone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Or, if you prefer to text, the Crisis Text Line has crisis counselors available – send the word CRISIS to 741-741.
Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.