Finding Hope: For Amanda Fontaine, sharing her struggle helps build strength

  • Amanda Fontaine, who is now working toward her doctorate while also teaching a class at the University of New Hampshire, says that finally talking about her attempt at suicide as a 19-year-old after years of silence was a liberating experience. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Amanda Fontaine is now working on her doctorate and teaching her own class for the first time at the University of New Hampshire, a course on the sociology of food. Fontaine is in one of the classrooms where she teaches on the UNH campus on September 27, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/24/2018 6:52:12 PM

The day after Amanda Fontaine attempted suicide at age 19, she pretended it never happened.

For years, she kept the fact that she had once tried to take her life a secret. She didn’t tell her doctor, her friends, colleagues or even her parents that she had ever felt so hopeless.

Fontaine was a first-generation college student, enrolled in a dual-degree program on the honor’s track at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. She worried that being open about her attempt would change the way she was viewed professionally.

“Are they going to view me differently?” she remembers thinking. “Am I going to be somehow not good, or not worthy in their eyes?”

“I felt like it was a black mark that I could hide – and I should hide – in order to maintain the professional persona and keep going in my academic career,” she said.

But as she progressed academically – graduating summa cum laude at Clark and earning two masters degrees from the University of New Hampshire – it became harder to keep her story to herself. Fontaine was drawn to work in the field of mental health and suicide prevention, and started a major research project examining the social factors contributing to college students who take their own lives.

Over time, she said she started to feel less worried about people judging her, and more excited about what she could do to help others.

“I had that little epiphany, of, ‘Well if that’s the case, I don’t want to be good enough for them,’ ” Fontaine said of her fear of being judged. “This is who I am.”

Now 29, Fontaine is working toward her doctorate and teaching her own class for the first time at the University of New Hampshire – a course on the sociology of food. There’s a subsection of the syllabus dedicated to mental health resources, and Fontaine said she has the opportunity to tell students the words she never got to hear as an undergraduate: how they are feeling matters.

“I’m very adamant and I want them to know that, if you’re struggling at any time, that takes priority. The syllabus especially is always strict, like, ‘This is what you’re going to do, this is when you’re going to do it, and then you’re going to be graded on it.’ But none of that matters if you don’t have your own health and wellness in the background,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine is one of the young people that has found hope through this public health crisis affecting New Hampshire youth. She’s found a way to talk honestly about her feelings, heal herself, and ultimately help others.

“I know – because I’ve been through it – that you can get to a place where you feel better, and you can experience all of the good life has to offer,” Fontaine said. “I may not have believed that 10 years ago, but I do now. I know it’s true.”

Academic pressure

Fontaine said she started feeling symptoms of depression when she was about 15 years old. She felt like she needed help, but family members and medical professionals assured her it was a phase she would grow out of.

“It was difficult for me to convince people that there was something off about how I was feeling, that this wasn’t typical teenage angst,” she said.

When she was about 18, Fontaine said she tried anti-depressants, but got frustrated when they didn’t work as quickly as she had hoped. She said she started seeing a therapist that she never built a connection with, and got discouraged. She stopped both treatments within the span of a few months.

Fontaine said the depression got worse as she progressed through school and went to college. Academic success had always been a central part of her identity: it had the power to make her feel accomplished and empowered when she did well, but small and incapable when she did not.

While attending Clark, she was living on her own in Worcester, Mass., and working about 30 hours a week at Dunkin’ Donuts to support herself while trying to balance a heavy workload. Some nights, Fontaine said she would stay up all night studying in order to get top grades – but she still felt lost.

“I was very stressed and overwhelmed, not just with what I had to do in the moment, but also feeling like I wasn’t really working toward something, that I was kind of directionless in a way,” Fontaine said. “I felt that even though I was doing so much, it wasn’t enough.”

Fontaine said her feelings grew to a point where she felt like the pressure was insurmountable.

Stigma

Fontaine said that when she survived her suicide attempt, she felt more embarrassment than anything.

“I was ashamed that I had failed,” Fontaine said. “I was not someone who was used to failing – even at something that I should have been happy to have survived.”

That shame was part of what motivated her to keep quiet for so long. And as time went on, she was eventually able to find balance in her life again and manage her depression.

Wary after her experience with mental health professionals, Fontaine went to her OBGYN, who was able to prescribe her anti-depressants again. She said after a period of adjustments, she did feel better.

Yet at 23, after getting her first masters degree and starting to work full time, she started to feel suicidal again.

She decided, as a last resort, to try therapy again.

Coping tools

Fontaine said her therapist was the first person she ever told about her suicide attempt.

“She understood where I was coming from. Her response wasn’t one of those, ‘Hang in there, we’re going to make everything all better and it’s going to be sunshine and roses,’ because I wouldn’t have believed that,” Fontaine said. “She said, ‘You know that option is always available to you, but let’s try some other things and see if those work first.’ ”

To Fontaine’s surprise, the tools her therapist gave her to improve how she was feeling worked.

Her therapist helped her find more healthy habits for stress relief: She taught her to identify people in her life she could turn to and talk through things that were bothering her, instead of bottling it up. Activities as simple as art projects, making goofy graphic design projects, and photographing landscapes in black and white were healthy coping skills when she needed a distraction.

She said she realized that the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that she had lived by for so long was not sustainable. She worked to find a middle ground between work and the need for self-care.

Fontaine said she still has days that are long and hard when she feels discouraged, but she knows from past experience she can get through it. She said she expects speed bumps to come up, but she has learned how to push through.

“It would be lovely if I could say, ‘You’ll never have another scenario like this, you’ll never feel this way again.’ But we all know that’s not true,” she said. “It’s not really like a broken bone where you set it, it heals, hopefully, it never breaks again. It’s definitely something that needs maintenance.”

Speaking out

Slowly, Fontaine began to open up with her friends and family about what she had gone through.

They were supportive – but they were concerned that sharing her story would cause problems at work.

“My mom said, ‘I don’t want to see you go through all these years of schooling and be open about something that you shouldn’t be ashamed of, but that other people might have prejudices against.’ She said, ‘I don’t want to see that complicate your ability to be professionally successful,’ ” Fontaine said.

But as she was working as a teaching assistant for a sociology course at UNH, Fontaine said she found that conversations about mental health came up naturally. When she worked with students one-on-one, they often opened up about the pressure of school, and dealing with anxiety and depression.

“I was always very frank with them. I would say, ‘Real people have these issues. There’s nothing wrong with you for getting overwhelmed,’ ” she said.

When an opportunity came up in conversation to talk to a fellow faculty member about her attempt, Fontaine took it: The woman was a friend who had a strong religious background, and Fontaine was nervous about how she would react.

It ended up being a liberating experience.

“We talked about it later and how, for this person, it even challenged their own misconceptions about mental illness,” she said. “Like, ‘Hey, this isn’t what I’ve heard or what I was taught. This doesn’t look like the things that they said it would.’ ”

At academic conferences around New England and beyond, Fontaine presented her master’s thesis on undergraduate suicide. She said she started to see her experience and her struggle as something that could help her professionally, not hurt her.

She was asked to come up with a training method based for resident advisors in dorms, and was asked to share her personal experiences with student panels. Now, she’s co-chair of the campus suicide prevention committee at UNH, and helping to plan the statewide suicide prevention conference.

She said if she had the chance to go back and talk to herself at age 19, she would tell herself to be more patient with treatment, and less hard on herself.

“I wish that I could say, or I would believe it if somebody told me you can make mistakes and still live a good life and it’s not the end of the world,” Fontaine said. “You can stay in your head being hard on yourself, but self acceptance feels so much better.”


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