After reading about suicides at the College of William and Mary — there have been four student deaths this year and eight since 2010, all of them hitting hard at the small, close-knit school — an alumna, Cassie Smith-Christmas, was moved to write about her own experiences. A response from William and Mary immediately follows.
By Cassie Smith-Christmas
I do not blame William and Mary for my brother’s suicide in April 2010.
This decision was his and his alone and I will never know whether the way William and Mary treated him in the weeks leading up to his tragic decision would have made a difference in the outcome.
However, what I do know is that if William and Mary would have had a compassionate policy towards mental illness, they would have saved my family a great deal of anguish in this already immensely difficult time.
It is for this reason–to possibly save another family from the anguish we suffered–that I am writing this open and very personal letter.
This has been very difficult for me to write. I do not necessarily want people to know these things about me and my family, but, in light of recent events, I find that I cannot in good conscience keep silent about this. Please know that I am writing this in a personal capacity only and the views expressed here are my own. I also want to emphasize that what I am about to say is not against William and Mary as an institution of learning and research but against a specific policy it has towards students admitting suicidal thoughts.
The recent Washington Post article (April 15, 2015) and an earlier article (November 13, 2010) following the tragic deaths of Paul Soutter and Whitney Mayer, respectively, highlight the stance William and Mary seems to take towards student suicides: that a student population of extremely stressed, over-achieving students means that it was simply the pressure, the wanting to be the best and the fear of failure that drove the students to take their own lives, not any failings within the institution itself.
I cannot comment on any of the other victims’ personalities in terms of this image, but I do know that this does not describe my brother at all. Yes, he did very well academically, but he was a happy, laid-back guy.
He had lots of close friends and always put others above himself; the Valentine’s Day before his suicide, for example, he arranged an international flower order for me so that I wouldn’t feel sad about being single on that particular day.
He was incredibly silly and not afraid to show people his silly side — nearly everyone knew about his beloved rubber duck collection.
He was not some high-strung perfectionist terrified of failure nor was he a loner at all.
Neither did he appear to be depressed, a fact I have been wrestling with for the last five years, as I always felt that I should have seen the signs in the person I most loved in the world.
The 2010 article reads “Before this year there had not been a suicide at the school in five years.”
This sentence hit me and raises a thought I’ve had for some time now: that sometime between my time at William and Mary and my brother’s, significant changes were made in the way that the College dealt with students with mental issues.
The story starts when I am 18.
I have had a rocky first semester in terms of personal reasons (one of which tragically was the suicide of a high school classmate at another university), culminating with my boyfriend dumping me hours before my last exam.
A hallmate is worried about me and after the exam, I am made by the College to see a counselor. We arrange sessions for after the holidays and though I am resistant at first, I quickly I realize that counseling is good for me, especially since that freshman year continues to be rocky: I suffer a personal tragedy when my cousin dies.
And then that summer shortly after she has left William and Mary, the visiting creative-writing teacher I idolized and for whom I used to babysit, Reetika Vazirani, kills her beautiful child Jehan and then herself.
I have always owed it to William and Mary counseling that I was able to cope effectively with those events and throughout my life have looked back on my extremely positive experience with William and Mary as one of the main factors in my leading what I consider to be a happy, successful life.
After that difficult freshman year, I enjoy William and Mary thoroughly and in 2006 graduate with honors.
When it’s time for my brother, who is five years younger than me, to think about college, I highly recommend William and Mary, for many reasons, in part because of the really positive experience I had with counseling there.
He is accepted, even gets a scholarship, and starts in 2007.
Fast forward now to March 18, 2010. I am living abroad now and get a call from my mom. She has just gotten a call from my brother’s friend’s mother saying that my brother is thinking about suicide.
I manage to get through to him and among other things, I suggest he goes to student counseling, as they had helped me when I had had trouble my freshman year.
I wish I had never told him to go to counseling.
He goes to the counseling center but instead of offering any help, they call my mom to come down and then at 5 p.m. that day, hold a meeting with a dean and five other staff where they promptly dismiss my brother from William and Mary and ban him from College grounds.
The only written information they gave him is a handout detailing the paperwork he needed to be re-admitted to the College.
My brother is then taken home and the next day starts at our local mental health facility. He voluntarily enters a residential program, which is very hard ordeal for both him and my parents. However, he does well and is released to out-patient status on Monday, March 30, 2010.
The mental health professionals think that it would be best for him to resume his normal routine as soon as possible and recommend that he return to classes that Thursday.
During this whole time, William and Mary has not gotten in touch even once to see how my brother is doing.
The local mental health clinic faxes William and Mary the required paperwork as detailed in the dismissal handout; however, the College then requires further paperwork and this is also faxed.
It takes the College six times to acknowledge that they have indeed received the additional paperwork.
For reasons unknown to us, my brother’s re-admittance meeting is delayed until Monday, April 5.
He is denied admittance.
Below is an extract from my father’s letter to the president appealing this decision to be overturned:
Further delays in the re-admittance process can very well affect the rest of his life and his professional career. He desperately wants to complete his geology degree and is very concerned that missing any more time from class will jeopardize his college career. He has regained a very hopeful outlook on life at this point, and we don’t want to see his hopes shattered repeatedly.
We need to be advised as to the reason for this denial of admittance. More importantly, we cannot understand why your staff will not accept the verdict of the professionals from whom they advised him to seek treatment.
He has always followed the right course. He never attempted suicide.
He turned to your staff for help when he was depressed and thought about it.
He followed their advice to seek and receive intensive professional help, only to be denied re-admittance after he successfully completed the program.
If he were to have been diagnosed with a physical health problem and sent elsewhere for treatment, he would have been readily readmitted upon the recommendation of the attending physician.
However, since this situation deals with a mental health issue, he is being treated as if he were a criminal.
[…] Moreover, he has been left, as have we, with the distinct impression that the College of William and Mary simply wants to be rid of him because he sought assistance for a problem.
My brother was eventually re-admitted. He was stressed about the work he had missed, but took catching up in his stride. In our final conversation ever, he was joking about an oral presentation he had to give the following week. On Saturday April 24, his final day on earth, he went to go play with kittens with his girlfriend.
That evening he was supposed to meet her again, but instead drove his car to the beach and ended his life.
I will live my whole life wondering what was going through my brother’s head in those last moments.
And although I do not hold William and Mary responsible, the way they treated him certainly contributed to how lost he must have been feeling to make such an awful decision.
Being a student at university is about trust. Trusting that the university at which you’ve chosen to study will support you in your path to adulthood and above all, protect you so that you reach adulthood.
William and Mary did neither for my brother and his trust was shattered when the university in which he’d felt so welcome suddenly so harshly rejected him for suicidal thoughts.
Having that trust revoked is hard for anyone, let alone someone who is feeling highly vulnerable at the time.
So that is the story. My brother is gone and I will miss him with all my heart every day for the rest of my life, as I know the other William and Mary suicide victims’ family members will miss them.
Whether William and Mary could have prevented these deaths will never be known, but what I do know is that it needs to re-consider how they deal with students admitting to suicidal thoughts.
So that hopefully at the very least people like my family do not have to deal with cold, indifferent treatment they received in the weeks leading up to my brother’s death.
Ginger Ambler, William and Mary’s vice president for student affairs, responded to Cassie Smith-Christmas’ story:
After hearing Dr. Smith-Christmas’ courageous reflections about her brother Ian and the devastating experiences of her family, we are reminded of the complexities that frequently exist in addressing mental health. Our efforts and policies reflect our understanding that each individual’s situation is unique, and we respond in kind to the needs of students who require immediate and ongoing support.
Almost 40% of the students who access our services at the Counseling Center report having had suicidal thoughts. The vast majority of those students continue to be seen at the Counseling Center and remain in school.
In cases where the optimal treatment plan is for a student to take time off from school to more fully attend to his or her medical needs, the various options available to them are discussed in the context of that student’s unique health situation and on-going support needs.
Students who are on leave or who withdraw from the College are still considered students in good standing and our hope is to see them return to campus just as soon as it is healthy for them to be here. Because we are committed to supporting students in transitioning successfully back to our community, our return policies provide guidance, and provider treatment plans are critical to our decision-making.
Approximately 80% of students who leave our campus for medical reasons return within a year and continue to work with appropriate staff, using a variety of campus resources to help them academically persist.
While the intentions of such policies are centered on supporting students as they develop lifelong strategies for managing their mental health and enabling them to flourish, we are saddened by the way the process was perceived and experienced by Ian’s family. Knowing that such policies and processes can be difficult for everyone involved, we regularly evaluate how we can make improvements.