In light of Paul Soutter’s suicide

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April 16, 2015

10:02 PM

To whom it may concern:

My name is Noa Nir, and I am a William and Mary alumna (class of 2013).

Today, I sat down at my desk in my office in Washington, DC, turned on my computer, and was immediately inundated with statuses from my friends on Facebook. They all said one thing: “One Tribe, One Family.” I immediately knew — not just that a member of the William and Mary community had passed away, but that another student on our campus had taken his own life.

I always see it on Facebook first. Mouth open in disbelief — another one? — I then check my student email and find that dreaded “Notice to the Community.” This happened today. But today was different.
Today was when I finally realized: enough is enough.

“Bright, funny, vibrant.” This was how Paul Soutter, ’17 was described in everything I read. The same words I’d use to characterize Whitney Mayer, the girl who lived above me in Botetourt who took her own life during my first semester at William and Mary. My friends called Paul “brilliant.” I could say the same for my adjunct professor, Sarah Hammond, who never showed up to class after Thanksgiving my sophomore year and was found hanging in her apartment in Williamsburg. Paul is the third confirmed suicide at William and Mary this year alone. Enough is enough.

I don’t even attend William and Mary anymore, and I still feel like I’m holding my breath everyday, waiting for another notice. Waiting for the next death.

We say we’re “One Tribe, One Family.” We say this every time someone dies. We put a hashtag sign next to it. We gather a flurry of likes in response to it on Facebook. And then we wait. For the next one. We keep this slogan in our arsenal. This scares me.
“One Tribe, One Family.” How can William and Mary make this sentence feel real again? How can we turn it from a general condolence into a phrase of action? I think it relies on the faculty as much as it does on the student body itself.

I don’t know why Paul Soutter killed himself. I don’t know why Whitney Mayer killed herself, either. But maybe, just maybe, it had to do with a feeling of worthlessness, of suffocation, of loneliness. This is what I felt, to a lesser extent, during my time on campus. I know the feeling of needing to constantly prove myself — needing to show that I belonged to this school and was worthy of both its academics and its people. It’s really, really hard work. I know what it’s like to have to keep up — and to feel like a failure when I don’t.

There must be some way we can stop these feelings of inadequacy that I have encountered in so many people at William and Mary, including myself. There must be some way that we can emphasize that a person’s worth isn’t contingent on their academic achievements, on the clubs they’re in or the sports they play. There must be a way that we can make a person feel valued and loved, rather than murmuring “One Tribe, One Family” once they’ve already passed.

I wish that William and Mary could take its sad, sad record of suicides and use it to change the conversation on campus. I know that there have been efforts made recently to improve the counseling center, and I commend that. But I believe that the concept of a healthy work/life balance has remained elusive to many students at this school, and the idea of taking a break from work and extracurriculars — whether it’s for a weekend or for a semester — is frowned upon, unless it’s scheduled.

And I hope — with all my heart — that the administration takes steps to empower its students to heed warning signs in others, to speak out when they know a friend is in trouble. This is incredibly difficult – even when we see warning signs, we often do not know how to respond. This idea should be an integral part of destigmatizing mental health and treatment on campus. Give us the resources to help us help others.

But ultimately, it is the administration’s responsibility to take a good, hard look at itself and recognize that the well-being of its students comes first, and that national rankings come second. It is the administration’s responsibility to straddle the line between being a school of excellence and being a school of compassion. It is the administration’s responsibility to listen to its students when they say that enough is enough. The administration must listen, above all.

I graduated from William and Mary after three and a half years, with the emotional scars to prove it. I wish there was a way for me, as an alumna, to tell Paul and Whitney and all the other people on this campus who have killed themselves or have thought of killing themselves that there is a world beyond Williamsburg that is so beautiful, so bright, and so deserving of them. People in this world love you for who you are, not your grades or your accolades or whether you can land a joke. I hope that, with a shift in perception and a determination to break the mental health stereotype — both on and off campus — we can bring this overwhelming feeling of worthiness and purpose to our campus.

We are One Tribe, One Family right now only in the sense that we are united in our pain. But we — students and administration alike — must also unite in action.

Sincerely,
Noa Nir, ’13

Email Noa Nir at [email protected]

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  • Noa Nir

(2) Readers Comments

  1. Swan Point
    April 18, 2015 at 1:47 PM

    Ms. Nir, The feelings you describe are called adolescence and around the age of 24 or 25 most people outgrow those feelings of "worthlessness...and inadequacy." The college isn't injecting students with hormones or infusing their drinking water with anxiety-inducing drugs. You seem to expect the school to coddle self-indulgence rather than help students learn how to think for themselves and equip them to make it in a competitive world. The fact of the matter is that students at W&M are no more likely to take their own lives than students at any other college. I have checked and you should do the same. To intimate otherwise is reckless and untrue.

  2. IwishIweresurprised
    April 21, 2015 at 11:31 AM

    Noa, I appreciate your insights and would echo your concerns about campus culture. I remember driving in circles one night with a freshman girl who shook and cried in shock when the body of a hallmate was removed from the room adjacent to her own mere hours after a shared meal. I remember walking into and then, 20 minutes later, out of Professor Hammond's 9:00 am class on the Monday that staff were alerted to her disappearance when she didn't come to Wren in the Fall of 2011 and the heart-wrenching visit from her family a few short days later. I remember my own trips to the W&M Counseling Center my junior year when the depression and discouragement I had battled in silence for a year and a half became deafening so that I couldn't eat or sleep, and how my motivation for finally going was that I could no longer focus on my homework and didn't want my grades to slip. All else was secondary. I remember how, at the Counseling Center, I finally felt safe in the anonymity. While looking for help outside might have been portrayed as brave, I knew that any such action would be my scarlet S for the remainder of my time at the school. The W&M administration does not look at mental health like it does physical health or academic credibility. What good is a suma cum laude History Degree if you graduate with scars beneath the long black sleeves of your robe as you accept your diploma? This phenomenon is not a commonplace side effect of adolescence that "most people outgrow" - the public outcry from the Tribe community and increased allocation of resources are evidence of this and not examples of coddling. Suicides on campuses are not ubiquitous - W&M alums have multitudes of friends who graduated from other institutions with rosy memories of independence, working hard, and playing hard during their four years without fears of losing their classmates. A significant proportion of W&M alums do not. We hold our breaths for these campus notices because part of W&M culture is coming to expect them every semester. Whether W&M students are more or less likely to take their lives than any others is irrelevant. Our impression that we are speaks volumes.

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