Axel Kylander wearing suit and tie
Axel Kylander

trigger warning: suicidal ideation, graphic depiction of self harm, death, grief

Both my parents were college-educated, and there was never any question that I was going to college. There wasn’t a doubt that my family and I would be able to pay for me to go all the way through grad school, only what jobs I could work and what costs I could cut to avoid debt. I had a 4.0 GPA throughout my first two years, and won academic awards back to back.

But as much as my starting hand matched the popular stereotype of what a college student is, the cards being dealt soon changed that. As I graduated high school and started college in earnest, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I had to balance classes with taking care of her. I had no social life, and no friends. I had no time for emotions, and I began to lose my memories of life before that dark present. 

"There wasn’t a doubt that my family and I would be able to pay for me to go all the way through grad school, only what jobs I could work and what costs I could cut to avoid debt."

My mom died in July of 2018. I resumed classes a month later, and got involved in student leadership, determined to drown my sorrow in service, but it doesn’t work like that. My mental and physical health began deteriorating. I lost many of my memories, started having flashbacks and dissociating, all while losing my identity. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I had post-traumatic stress disorder, on top of my life-long battle with depression and anxiety. It did take me a very long time to do anything about it.

I pressed on, my grades starting to slip. I stopped sleeping, except when I was completely unable to stay awake, often being up for days at a time. My mood became erratic and self-destructive. I went to see the school counselor a few times, and that helped, but she was overworked and only a first step, with no real apparatus to connect me to support beyond that.

"I pressed on, my grades starting to slip. I stopped sleeping, except when I was completely unable to stay awake, often being up for days at a time. My mood became erratic and self-destructive."

Axel
Axel leading a session at the incoming leader training August 2021.

In August 2019 I attempted suicide. I wrote a note, walked off into the woods with a knife, pressed it against my abdomen, but couldn’t push it in.

I resumed classes a couple weeks later and found deeper despairs than being prepared to simply die. I started self-harming, cutting my arm with a razor. I continued to not sleep. I failed four of my five fall classes. In December 2019 I finally found my deepest despair, admitting myself to a hospital with a surety that I wouldn’t survive much longer otherwise.

When I emerged from the hospital, I faced the ruin of the past year and a half. A smoldering crater in my once-pristine GPA. Friends and family were scared for me. I focused on therapy. Slowly, I found my mental health improving, and found myself able to sleep. Flashbacks and despair became less frequent, self-harm vanished from my routine. I found myself going weeks, then months without suicidal thoughts. Even my grades improved, and I found myself reliably happy for the first time I could remember.

There are so many things that could have gone differently with my story, so many opportunities for a different path if there had been a clear, on-campus pathway to mental healthcare for any student.

"There are so many things that could have gone differently with my story, so many opportunities for a different path if there had been a clear, on-campus pathway to mental healthcare for any student."

I lead MN because I know the pain of my loss, I know the weight of depression, and the needling of anxiety. I lead MN because my upper left arm is knotted with faint scars only I really notice, but it’s enough that I notice. I lead MN because I remember the cold steel against my stomach. I lead MN because I don’t want anyone to suffer, not like I have and not in any form. I don’t want people to bleed as they pursue their dreams and a better life. My heart believes that it is possible for the college experience to be better than this, and my mind knows it is true. And I will never stop being part of the fight to make it so.

Axel is currently the President of LeadMN. He advocates for students struggling with mental health, basic needs, and college affordability. His leadership has led to the passage of the Mental Health Awareness Act, the Basic Needs Barrier Reduction Act, and more.