An article in a recent issue of the University of Portland campus newspaper,The Beacon, introduced me to a story about a death by suicide that was stigmatized and how the effects of stigma are unfolding in real time -- and hopefully about how stigma is being overcome.
The article, by UP student Logan Crabtree, caught my eye because he tells of founding, with fellow student Jesse Dunn, an Active Minds chapter at UP "following the suicide of our friend Mike" -- and I am always moved when, in the aftermath of suicide, survivors like Crabtee and Dunn take action to improve mental health resources and services in their community.
I was also touched by Crabtree's frankness about the struggles of the new chapter, including the impact that another student's suicide had on him, only nine months after the death of Michael Eberitzsch II:
We were devastated by the news of Conner Hall’s suicide ... For me his death felt like a personal failure. I spent weeks questioning and reviewing every event, article and Facebook post we had made [during the start-up of Active Minds]. What else could we have done? Why did this happen? What else can we do?
I sympathized with Crabtree regarding his feeling of personal failure, which I believe everyone involved in suicide prevention has grappled with, each of us in our own way -- and I was curious about what was happening at UP. An Internet search led me to the backstory, which is, at turns, both troubling and hopeful -- just as facing the harsh reality of suicide often is.
The backstory is told by Steve Duin in a Dec. 12 Oregonian article, "Suicide and Stigma at the University of Portland."
Duin's article focuses on the proposition that university officials and clergy reported Eberitzsch's death either inaccurately or ambiguously -- and ultimately in a way that infused both the death and its aftermath for the student body with stigma about mental health issues and suicide.
Immediately after Eberitzsch died, communications from the university president Mark Poorman and all the way down the chain of command (UP is a Catholic school) emphasized that he had died in an automobile accident and either omitted or downplayed the possibility that it was a suicide. For example, the Oregonian article states:
In his homily that afternoon, Father Mark DeMott said, "We will never know what happened in the middle of the night on Highway 26. It may have been an accident. It may have been intended."
But there was no ambiguity about the cause of Eberitzsch's death: He had posted a suicide note on Facebook at 1:45 that morning -- and then in the dark of night turned his car into the path of an oncoming log truck.
In response to the university's communications, Jesse Dunn and Joe Shorma, in a gripping editorial in The Beacon, called out Poorman and UP:
In what could have been a perfect opportunity to have an open dialogue about the risks and consequences of depression, our University has opted to sweep it under the rug.
Fast forward to the present, and -- led by the advocacy and action of the school's Active Minds chapter -- it seems that change might be afoot. The Beacon publishes a regular "Let's Talk" column, inspired by Dunn and Shorma's editorial in March. Poorman has been clear and straightforward in communications, sadly, about two subsequent suicides among UP students -- and he has convened a panel to review the school's mental health services.
But Druin found a number of school officials reluctant to talk to him as he was researching his article about the university's handling of the situation. And among the students the Oregonian reporter talked to:
Many are critical that the health center on campus remains understaffed during this crisis. Many need more than emails from Mark Poorman.
The crisis Druin refers to is that, by the close of 2015:
This small Catholic university has confronted four suicides, three by students and one by an alumnus who worked as a night custodian.
Passions are running high, as they often do in the wake of suicide. Reading through the comments posted to Druin's story makes it abundantly clear that the community -- UP students, parents, faculty, staff, and the wider circle of people affected by these tragic circumstances -- are shocked and frightened. Even Eberitzsch's mother, Debe, weighs in on this public forum and accuses the university of not sufficiently helping her son and of mishandling the communications about his death.
What is happening at UP is nothing more or less than exactly what the aftermath of a series of suicides looks like in a small community, and it demonstrates how stigma affects what happens next. Dunn and Shorma showed wisdom beyond their years when they observed that there was "a perfect opportunity to have an open dialogue." I can only add that the opportunity has not yet passed -- but that it will.