Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Meditation: on student deaths (& depression)

It was probably this time of year, albeit in a different season. Probably a bit later, as I don't remember leaves on the trees in New Haven, Connecticut. I do remember cold and damp, though pathetic fallacy has likely intervened over the course of 35 odd years. I lived in Berkeley College, right across the street from Sterling Library, a cathedral-sized and gothic-styled building that featured an enormous front door; above the door was a shelf; on the shelf were statues. Here is what memory has dimmed, and what better weather brightens.

As I walked out toward Cross Campus one morning and looked toward Sterling, I noticed that one of the statues--one very hard to get to--was wrapped in what looked to be a bloody toga. Red paint, no doubt, but the effect was eerie. I was told that someone had cut his own throat in the 7th floor bathroom of the library stacks the day before. So the bloody toga memorialized (as it were) that student's suicide. The bloody toga remained around the statue for days, became a keen focus for my attention. I was subject, myself, to long and very painful bouts of depression, and was beginning to realize that each time they happened--approximately every two years--the illness grew more severe. That statue in the toga taunted me. It seemed to represent the hard face of a world that refused to see others' pain, that mocked it.

I somehow stumbled through my late teens and early to mid-20s; I consider myself a student of memory, but even now I try to change lanes when those years come up. My junior year, I tried the counseling center at Yale, but they would have me wait for weeks. By the time an appointment was available, I'd lost interest. Besides, the psychologist had asked me the wrong questions and I didn't like the look of him. Mostly I remember I was wearing a blue and white striped French sweater when I saw him. The vagaries. I wandered the streets of New Haven thinking about going to the main hospital, checking myself in. Did not. I called my mother, who came to help, but she did not. Later that summer, I saw a psychologist in Maryland, who said she considered medication but decided against it. It was not until my next major depression, my second year of graduate school, that I was given meds, meds that worked, and saw a therapist about everything that had been torn apart (or had not happened at all, like normal life) during my years of depression.

The meds were not a simple fix. When they began to work, I felt betrayed. How could the swallowing of a pill make me feel better? What about all those years of crawling under covers, of walking miles a day because there was nothing else I could do, what about all those years of not living a normal life either because I was depressed or I feared that taking risk would make me so? How could the pill change me? Who was I, then, the depressed or the undepressed me? (That was already a question, but was brought into crisis by the medication.) The only time I felt in danger of suicide was during the few weeks it took for the medication to work full-time. At first, it would only work for a few minutes or an hour a day, before I was dropped back into the vat of bad feeling. Agitated by anxiety, I walked for hours, thinking about highway overpasses and the other wanderers who occasionally crossed my path. It was those sudden shifts in and out of pain that were hardest. Somehow, I could deal with consistent awfulness, but not the move from brightness to darkness, and then back the next day for however long. The strategy I took was to wait expectantly for 4 p.m., which launched the good hour, and then to rest inside of it. But I think of the equation of meds with suicide and suspect that the link is not because the meds do harm, but because they are doing only a very limited kind of good at first.

So when a student earlier this semester asked me to speak to him outside class, and when he said he had not only lost a friend the previous weekend to a drunk driver, but had also witnessed a student falling to his death at the UHM dorms the night before, I instinctively knew what to do. I had him gather up his backpack and I walked him to the counseling center. It turns out he had to wait four days to see someone. But he did. My next class of that day included a young woman whose sister was a friend of the deceased; she could not find her sister that late morning. At this point, my feeling of compassion arrived at an intersection with my anger. Why had I not been told that my students might be traumatized that morning, that they might need help, that a member of their community had fallen to his death within sight of a large number of them?

I wrote to administrators; I called the head of counseling; I talked to my students. I wrote to a large email list devoted to resisting the current budget cuts and mysterious hirings and firings by admin at Manoa. Several graduate students responded actively, some very busy faculty members less so. Most of us have had direct experience of mental illness and/or its effects. Most of us have experienced the effects of someone's death on our living. One graduate student had wondered what had happened to a UHM graduate student who died hiking; he found answers only from her undergraduate institution on-line. He'd written a letter; the response was oblique, sounded unfeeling. We formed a small group. We made an agenda, which you can find here. I created a hand-out that featured good protocols from other universities; suggestions from colleagues; articles on people (including a woman I found in my Yale Alumni Mag) trying to prevent suicide, other websites devoted to preventing college suicides. We had a meeting with the Dean of Students, the Head of Housing, and the Head of the Counseling Center at UHM. Except the Head of Counseling never showed up. We were told that this incident was complicated: was it suicide or drug-related? He'd not died on the scene and the police department does not report to the university, so could admin in fact assume that he had died, and so on. After all, it would be embarrassing to announce a death that had not happened.

My honors research class is reading Timothy Denevi's book HYPER, both a memoir of his life with ADHD and a non-fiction treatise on the history of the condition. I know Tim, who earned an MA from us several years ago, but mostly as a fellow baseball fan and writer. The book opens his life up in all its tenderness and confusion: he was a violent, impulsive kid for whom early treatment with meds caused suicidal thoughts; he was bullied and he bullied others; he entered into zones of seeing no color, losing perspective; he lost friends to drugs and accidents. My students love the book, and they enjoyed meeting Tim on skype. ("He doesn't seem violent," one said sheepishly.) I wanted years ago to write a book on my depressions, the anxiety disorder that triggered and accompanied them like one bad clown dancing with another bad clown. But I never did. Even now, sitting down to write this brief post renders me awkward, uncomfortable, bruised. I remember after my last major depression going to an Ash Wednesday service and bursting into tears. I sobbed through the entire service while a friend stood next to me patiently. I remember an overwhelming restlessness, the desire to make up for lost, spent time. "Did you feel different after your depression?" a doctor once asked me. "Yes, I discovered my sense of humor during my depression," I responded. In retrospect, the depressions freed me. But they may have only freed me from their own handcuffs.

Tim Denevi's book is amazing in many ways, but his self-awareness is excruciating and beautiful. My students are stunned about how well he knew himself at an early age, even when that knowing had no power to stop his impulsive behavior. When I asked the simple question, "Who is Tim Denevi?" and followed up with "is he a stable identity?" they knew to answer that his identity was a wave, not a line. I worry about them. Many of them know so little of all this, at least in relation to those of us who are older, who have survived, whether through self-awareness or lucky blundering. At the mention of waves, I remember the blue bus I took to the mental hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, the way it went up and down, its shocks soft, until it arrived at the low building where I had my appointment. I often sat quietly, unable to say anything, but pleased to be with someone else. There was a next time, too, downtown, in a warren of offices that I remember as being underground. Were they, or did it only seem so? I ask myself the question Tim poses near the end of his book: "Is survival the same as being healed?" The question is clearly rhetorical, as there can be no certain answer. At its most basic level, the literal, the answer goes like this: in order to be healed, we need to survive. If my university and others do not work hard at helping their students survive, there is nothing but a lovely memorial service and--if you're very lucky--a kind notice in the newspaper or a posthumous degree.

This post has turned into one more about suicide than about student deaths. While suicide is a huge problem on campuses, the lack of acknowledgment of any death (except perhaps those of athletes) is a severe on mine. And it's those who are left behind who then deal with the pain. So let me end by saying that a fundamental need is for acknowledgment, for awareness, for attention to. Pay attention.

Here are some resources I've found that might help your institution or your students out:

 --Suicide Prevention Resource Center

--The Jed Foundation

--Active Minds

Our meeting of October 20, 2014

More on student deaths: a meeting with the Dean of Students. My minutes.

Several of us met with Dean I and with Mark K, the head of student housing, this morning. The head of counseling was a no-show.

We talked at length about several issues:

--Notification of the community of a student death, on the level of the department and the university (there are problems on both levels);

--Reasons why such communication is difficult; because UHM has no police force, HPD does all the investigations and never reports back to admin. "We still don't know if the young man died or not," was the Dean's dry remark. She's hoping that a campus police force will ameliorate communication in the future.

--Productive reactions to deaths at other institutions. The packet of materials that I handed out included materials from Indiana University of PA (a protocol for dealing with deaths, and a letter sent out to announce a student death) and Duke UP (an article from their magazine on two students who died recently, which showed how much they had contributed to the community).

--The need to "clear the desks" at counseling when an emergency happens. Unless a student says, "I witnessed a traumatic event last night," he or she will not be given an immediate appointment. But of course students do not know this, and make appointments for a week or more in advance.

--The need to publicize the counseling center better, to be pro-active, because "this will happen again," as Dean Ideta put it.

--The need to train administration and faculty about mental illness and suicide. Also how to deal with an unexpected death in a class. Faculty are often in the dark about what to do in the face of such events. Some training and open communication would help greatly.

The packet I handed out, as well as the letter V brought to the Dean, included protocols, notes from faculty about what they would like to see happen, articles about productive responses to suicide, and webpages by Active Minds, JED Foundation, and a group at the U of Washington that is working to prevent suicide (and to create protocols).

We offered to do what we can to help. A ended the meeting with a "what's next?" We will keep at Dean I and others, and I will send an email to the head of the Counseling Center that includes our agenda (I did leave a packet for her with the Dean, too).

My sense is that the meeting was effective as a communication between students & faculty and the Dean, but I don't know that any immediate benefit will come of it. We will need to keep pushing at the door.

Thanks to those of you who came, and also to those of you who did not but who send me encouraging emails from time to time. Much appreciated.
all best, Susan

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Agenda for Monday's meeting with Dean of Students & others about student deaths on (and off) campus

Monday, October 23rd meeting with Dr. Lori Ideta, Dr. Allyson Tanouye, Mr. Michael Kaptik
Some issues and suggestions about student deaths


Student deaths and the trauma that follows. Announcing deaths to the faculty of the student who died but not to other faculty is not effective, especially when a death occurs in a public space, like a dorm. Students are part of various communities, and not acknowledging the death of a member of our community does harm to those left behind. First, it puts the burden of notification on those closest to the deceased, which is unnecessary and cruel. Secondly it complicates grieving when close friends of the deceased are affected, but the broader community is unaware of what is happening and trying to deal with the affected persons who are distant, non-responsive, and show signs of unexplained depression.


Write a protocol for campus death announcements to be made easily accessible on-line. Try, so far as possible, to be transparent: announce student deaths early on. There's no need to say how they died, just that they did, write a letter to the larger community about that student's contribution to UHM, and be sure to write to parents and close friends of the student. Without a general announcement from administration (not simply from Ka Leo), or a memorial service of some kind, grieving by students affected by the death is rendered more difficult.


After a death on campus, students who were close to the deceased or who witnessed the death will be traumatized and need help.


Provide counselors on a “clear the desk” basis and make such assistance public, via UHM email, that counseling is immediately available. In addition, post flyers across campus throughout the year advertising the Counseling Center, and what they offer to students.


Because suicide is a major cause of death in college and graduate-school age students, create a pro-active response. Instead of fearing “suicide contagion,” announce (apart from any specific instance) that suicide is a problem, create a public list of symptoms of suicidal ideation (obsession with suicide), and act to prevent suicide. Train faculty, staff, and students, making them aware of the problem and especially of how to react to it. Beyond that, act proactively to intervene with students exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, or other traumatic life events such as death, disability, or divorce,

--What we can do:

As a small hui of concerned university citizens, we are willing to lobby administrators, legislators, and student groups. If a concrete proposal is offered to us to help in any of the ways we've mentioned, we have a financial backer. We are willing to serve on a committee to create the protocols. We are willing, in our daily lives, to treat our students with compassion and to educate our colleagues who lack experience with these issues.

Signed: Susan M. Schultz, Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Victor Ruthig, Michelle Tigchelaar, Marguerite Butler, Peter Hoffenberg, George Willkens, Rebecca Evans, Philippe Busse

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fall, 2014 courses

I confess this is to make them easier for me to access them! But the courses are Honors research 101 and Introduction to Creative Writing (Documentary Poetry & Personal Essay).

Intro to CW

Honors 101: Research

Hope to commence blogging again soon--