By Vincent Aldazabal, Shannon Kane and Hailey Marr
There are times when tragedy catalyzes an urgent response that compels necessary criticism in the defense of hope and the preservation of human life. Paige Aiello, Michael Menakis and, most recently, Sarah Sutherland each committed suicide during their time at the College. Their absences are deeply felt on campus and our hearts are indeed broken.
Sutherland is the third student to have taken her life in the last two and a half years, while Paige Aiello and Michael Menakis committed suicide in the spring of 2013 and 2014, respectively. This number does not include attempts or even the number of individuals contemplating such a choice, but it does give us an insight to the abysmal state of mental health care on campus. This is a brutal reality that we cannot ignore, and we would be remiss in placating the shortcomings of our campus’s institutional leadership and the student body’s own lack of empathy. This piece is dedicated to the memories of three beautiful people and intends to initiate a campaign of hope predicated upon serious institutional reform and individual empowerment which are now both overwhelmingly essential for the very sustainability and survival of the College’s students. If our students and administrative leaders cannot work to heal broken hearts through the mobilization of humanitarian efforts and committed economic measures for its students, just like it has for academic interests, our public education system is fundamentally broken.
The tone expressed in President Gitenstein’s email following this recent tragedy is ultimately symptomatic of the willful ignorance of systemic hindrances to student’s mental health, as it exists at the highest levels of this college. This disregard is evidenced by the critical lack in funding given to resources like Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS. Many students who have attempted to utilize CAPS have expressed that the work counselors tirelessly participate in is admirable, but they are obviously underfunded and, as a result, understaffed. Given the continuous thrum of construction equipment present on all corners of campus, the message sent to students is clear. For those in charge, the outward appearance of the College is being addressed as a higher priority than that of students’ mental healthcare. The fact is, while our mental health resources are of a high quality in their limited availability, they are not as “extensive” as Gitenstein claims. They will not be extensive until they are allocated funding and resources proportional to their importance, which are now of tantamount value. That students should sometimes have to wait upwards of three weeks to speak with a mental health professional after an initial intake with CAPS, and that they are only allowed to see a professional for a very limited number of appointments, is regrettable. Students are forced to look elsewhere for help. This marginalizes individuals who do not have access to transportation to and from campus or those with subpar health insurance that leaves them unable to afford treatment. There is a very clear bottom line in this situation, and it’s high time that the College’s administration adjust its priorities and put students’ mental health and safety as an immediate platform of essential reform. It will take more than rhetorical gestures and reactive measures to prevent any further tragedies.
This change will be difficult, as we are faced with an increasingly rigorous corporate strangling of academic institutions by private power. Yet our moral consciences are gravely threatened. We must cease praising the accelerated pace of constructing Campus Town if we cannot center financial resources and humanitarian plans to provide serious constructions — institutional and personal — that secure acceptable tools for long-term mental healthcare. In the face of overwhelming grief, we must re-evaluate how we are utilizing the precious time we have here in college. This will require leadership and student collectives to re-emerge from the loss that compels us and be propelled to move forward to build support lines, media campaigns, academic outlets and crucial long-term care for those struggling with mental health. The College must be provoked from the top administrative corners to the brightest minds and largest hearts to form an inclusive community that prioritizes empathy in the pursuit of safety.
Perhaps of paramount importance is the need for bureaucratic interferences with care to be dismantled — most certainly limited by the political power of insurance companies — so healthcare professionals are not limited to healing voices of desperation, most poignantly when the very real expressions of suicidal ideation and feelings are conveyed. Any voices that immediately respond to say radical change is impossible must consider the tragic ramifications of current practices. Either we challenge what we’ve been told is “just how it is” or knowingly await the next heartbreaking and pitiful email from Gitenstein.
Suicide is not an inevitable occurrence of our existence, and the struggle for what is ideal must be continually pursued in the face of social injustice. The best way to honor the memories of those we have lost in the struggle with mental health is to take serious preventive measures. Institutional reform is but the beginning. How we reconstruct our hearts’ intents will only be realized if there is a consensus that three suicides are three too many. Shall we rigorously pursue the protection of our humanity, or shall we continue to adhere to the same order that the powers at be have implemented?