Thursday was supposed to be opening night, when Paul Soutter, a sophomore at the College of William & Mary, would be on stage in a student-written play about how the stresses college students face can break them.
People instead will gather for his funeral at a church in Arlington, where he grew up.
Soutter took his own life early Monday, according to officials at the esteemed liberal arts college in Williamsburg, Va. Those who knew and loved him described Soutter as an outstanding student and a brilliantly funny friend, and his death resonated deeply in this close-knit campus community, raising concerns about the challenges college students handle on a daily basis and the mental health struggles students can face.
It was the fourth student death at William & Mary this year and the eighth since 2010, at a school that has 8,400 undergraduate and graduate students. Soutter’s passing seemed a tipping point for many students and alumni, who asked why yet another high-achieving young person has been lost, and whether there weren’t better ways to ease stress and help people in emotional crisis.
William & Mary is among numerous elite U.S. campuses now struggling with this issue, with high-profile ongoing conversations at Yale, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and many others.
“I don’t know what he was dealing with,” said Tess Higgins, a senior who spent the past two years working on the play in which Soutter was a principal actor, and she probably never will truly know, she said. But she hopes the themes of the play might help bring some light to the crushing stresses some students feel. Attempts to reach Soutter’s family through the university and family friends on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
On Wednesday, students, faculty and others gathered for an emotional campus memorial, remembering Soutter’s kindness to friends, his theater roles, his funny improv performances, his unexpected insights. They plan to have another gathering next week, with counselors available.
There was an e-mail widely shared on campus, Higgins said, in which a grieving student asked for an extension on a test and the professor responded with sympathy, but no extra time. Her own professors were wonderfully accommodating, she added, and a school spokesman shared an e-mail the provost sent to faculty urging them to be compassionate. Still, it was symbolic of the kinds of pressure she worries about.
“We should be encouraged to take risks and fail gloriously,” Higgins said. “If we can’t do it here, then where can we do it?”
“I don’t even attend William and Mary anymore, and I still feel like I’m holding my breath everyday, waiting for the next death,” Noa Nir, a 2013 graduate who works at the Institute of Medicine, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “I don’t know — I cannot presume to know — why these students chose to take their own lives.
“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 felt the need to constantly prove myself — the need to show that I belonged to this renowned college and was worthy of both its academics and its people. I know what it’s like to have to keep up — and to feel like a failure when I don’t.”
Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness at the college, cautioned that it is easy to over-connect academic stress and the risk of suicide; he said it is actually a low predictor of suicidal feelings. The best predictor is a long history of mental health issues, he said.
Crace said the school has been adding more resources for students who are struggling with mental health issues, with thousands of students taking advantage of resiliency training, as one example. Crace said the school will add services such as an after-hours call center and a full-time psychiatrist.
Gregg Robertson, the principal of Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School, said Soutter was talented and smart, quiet and very funny: “Paul was a terrific student!”
Bill Chamblee, a physics teacher at Washington-Lee, called Soutter a “renaissance man,” who studied intensified physics and AP Physics and excelled at theater. “He had a broad spectrum of interests and likewise a broad spectrum of friends,” he said.
Higgins, still shocked and overwhelmed, said the play at William and Mary that Soutter was to perform in certainly won’t happen this week.
But his friends might, if Soutter’s family agrees, honor him by staging a reading with counselors on hand as a means to spark conversation about these issues and asking for help.
“He had one of my favorite lines in the play,” she said, when his character tells another,
“Be the best at everything. Get this internship, have these grades, that leadership position, these goals. Getting only one hour of sleep is a badge of pride because you worked so hard. But it’s not. Maggie, you want all these pride badges that mean nothing. I like you without your trophies and your test scores; I like you in your sweatpants! But you don’t like that girl. And to me, that is a tragedy.”
“It really breaks my heart,” Higgins said, “that he’s not here to say them.”
(This post has been updated to reflect that funding for the after-hours call center and full-time psychiatrist comes from the university budget, not the Virginia General Assembly.)