Last week, I got news from Prof. Francis Tanglao-Aguas (Director of Africana Studies and Asian American Studies Research Initiative and Class of 2015 Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Theatre at the College of William and Mary), of the passing of Bobby Wermus (William and Mary, ’08). Though I never knew Bobby, many alumni have gathered in support of Bobby and his family and friends. Many have donated to a GoFund me campaign, in hopes of offsetting funeral and services costs for his loved ones. A week later, I was browsing the William and Mary website when I came across the following statement from the College, which began as such:
“Dear William & Mary Community,
There is no message worse than the one I share with you today. With profound sadness, I am writing to tell you of the death of one of our students, Paul D. Soutter, a sophomore from Arlington, Va., who took his own life in the early morning hours today. The WMPD responded immediately after receiving a 911 call from one of his friends…”
The Tribe mourns the loss of both Bobby and Paul. And while we will never know the anguish and pain that these young men experienced, I want to extend my sincerest sympathy and prayers to his loved ones.
With the news of these terrible tragedies, Tribe members far and near have been posting on social media, with phrases such as “One Tribe, One Family,” among others. We stand in solidarity, during this time of darkness. Or do we? As the Tribe family struggles with the untimely deaths of Bobby and Paul, I can’t help but wonder:
What has happened to the William and Mary spirit of truly making a difference? Have we become so complacent as to believe that the only way to support a cause is by merely posting a statement on social media in order to show that we care?
I admit, I am guilty of doing such things. During times of crisis or struggle, the William and Mary community seems to band together to support one another. But how far does that support truly go? Does it last for a few weeks, before it is pushed to the wayside by the next trend online, from dumping buckets of ice water over our heads, to sharing yet another BuzzFeed article? It’s time to do more.
I cannot tell you how many times I received a message in my E-mail inbox, similar to the one above, while I was a student at William and Mary. Because William and Mary is such a close-knit school with very few degrees of separation, each loss affected the campus. And while such events are seemingly unprecedented, we have come to think that these tragic cases that are simply part of life, as many of us go on without any sense of agency. We have come to believe that something like suicide is normal. That it is just the way the world is and there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. This is where we are wrong.
It should not take a crisis to spur the idea of change. Have our students not suffered enough? Are tales of suicide supposed to serve as the only lessons for others to go seek help from a friend or from the Counseling Center? You’d be appalled to hear that the first time that I even learned that the Counseling Center was a resource was during my sophomore year at the College. It wasn’t until I had a break down (accompanied by uncontrollable tears) in my Arabic class that a gracious professor invited me to take the rest of the class off and to speak with him during office hours later in the day. When we met, I shared with him the pain that I was going through: a very close friend of mine had threatened to commit suicide over the weekend, shortly before disappearing and cutting off lines of communication, and I was unsure of how to cope. It was the first time I had ever been openly exposed to mental health concerns. My professor then advised me to speak to someone in the Counseling Center. After meeting with a close friend, who encouraged me to take my professor’s advice, I made my way from Swem Library to the Counseling Center in hopes of making an appointment. However, I was asked to return another time, as there were no available time slots. Like many counseling centers on college campuses across the country, W&M’s Counseling Center was facing a shortage in capacity, or quite possibly even funding. But, how was I supposed to know that this was the case?
At the time, I was filled with distress and more sadness; I was encouraged to seek help, had come to terms to actually do so, and found out that I wasn’t even a top priority in line to receive the care that I was advised to seek. How many other students experience this while at the College? How many experience this at other schools around the nation?
My experience evolved over time. Once I was finally able to make an appointment, I found that I did not like individual counseling – where I spoke one-on-one with a therapist or psychologist. These types of conversations were too frightening for me. I did not understand the concept or possibility of recovery by sharing my struggles with a stranger. And above all, I felt ashamed of actually going to the Counseling Center. I was afraid of being perceived as weak by my classmates, and so I only shared my story with a select few. In retrospect, I wish I had been more open to discussing my experience with others. By keeping quiet, I was only feeding into the stigma against mental health that is so deeply embedded, not just on our campus, but in society. Still, I continued to participate in individual counseling, as I knew that I needed a level of support beyond just my classmates and professors.
It wasn’t until my junior year that one of my best friends told me she was participating in group therapy at the College. Group therapy? If I had trouble during individual counseling, how would I be able to manage in a room full of strangers? I considered her recommendation, and went to the Counseling Center to sign up. Unfortunately, I was placed on the wait list, and was told that I may be able to partake the following Spring semester – if an opening was available. I waited until the next semester to receive the help I requested, and in the meantime, I was lucky to have compassionate and understanding professors whom I discussed my concerns with during their office hours. But what about students who may not have professors like mine — professors who encouraged me to seek help, or who showed compassion by offering extensions for my papers or alternate dates to take exams?
The following semester, I found just how powerful group therapy was. I was experiencing recovery and had found a way to share my challenges with others. It was both productive and healthy — and I wasn’t ashamed of it. I started talking to my friends about my experience at the Counseling Center. Attending group therapy once a week became the highlight of my junior year at the College; I can tell you now that Mondays quickly became my favorite day of the week, as those were the days I went for my group therapy sessions. As I shared my story with others, some of my peers even began to open up and tell me that they too had been a part of either individual or group therapy. I wanted so badly to encourage them to speak up and tell their stories, but knew that it was stigma that was preventing them from doing so.
The College of William and Mary is not a “suicide” school. I cringe when I see these sort of claims by the media, see it among online threads under news articles or hear it in conversation. And while no one can stop anyone from ending his or her life, I wonder what is being done on campus in terms of prevention. Sure, Counseling Center visits spike when something like Paul’s tragic death comes about. But what about in between such times of public sorrow? What about during times of silent suffering, between all of the research, papers, exams and for many students working on- or off-campus jobs? What is being done, not just by administration and offices like the Counseling Center, but by faculty, staff, students and alumni? The time to do something is NOW.
I call for compassion and forgiveness. To those who are supporting those around you, please know that Paul’s death, and others who have passed away by suicide, was not your fault. Mental illnesses are medical illnesses. They are sicknesses of the brain. They can be medically diagnosed and there is hope for recovery.
I call for prevention. I call for taking action before someone experiences a crisis. There must be an increase in continued emotional and mental support and education. It needs to start when a student is first accepted into the College, and continue to freshman or transfer orientation, then sophomore and junior year, and all the way to Commencement. There’s no need to stop there; the investment should even go beyond that, when we are alumni located around the world.
I call for giving back to our Alma Mater. One way we can do so is by donating to increase capacity at the Counseling Center — not just to our beloved Swem Library, new on-campus housing developments or sports facilities.
I call for accountability. Voice your concerns. Speak to administrators, faculty and staff. Meet with the various offices on campus. For those who are able, I encourage you to attend the following, which Ginger Ambler announced in an update earlier this week:
“OPEN CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH & SUICIDE PREVENTION
I know many of us have concerns and questions about mental health, suicide, and how to help friends in need. All members of the W&M community are invited to an open conversation on these issues next Wednesday, April 22, at 5:00 p.m. in Chesapeake BC. I hope you’ll join us.”
Reach out to your local NAMI Williamsburg chapter – the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots advocacy group that serves as a voice for those with mental health concerns. They provide support, education and advocacy, and even have support groups. Reach out the Student Assembly’s Department of Health and Safety, especially to the Undersecretaries of Mental Health and Safety. Reach out to other student-led organizations, like H.O.P.E. and Active Minds. Seek out what work is already being done. And get involved. Be advocates for your fellow Tribe family. Most importantly, be an advocate for yourself and your mental well-being.
I call for the elimination of stigma. It’s not just a matter of changing the structure, policy and procedure of how mental health crises are handled. It requires a fundamental change in behavior and culture to realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help. It doesn’t have to come from a counselor, therapist, psychiatrist or primary care physician. Sometimes, the first conversation can start with a friend, classmate or professor. Just seek help. Ask for it. You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
These are the actions that matter. It’s time to demand and be an agent of change.