We won’t recognize Connor the way we recognized Hannah, but if we truly want to make our community safer, we need to change that.
One reason for the difference is that there is no hope for Connor like there was for Hannah when she went missing; until this weekend, and especially early in the search, we could believe that if we helped and hoped and pushed, maybe we would find her alive. We don’t usually come together as a community to mourn the way we come together to rally. That makes sense to me, but I believe that even if we had found Hannah’s body immediately after her abduction, our community would have taken action and supported each other in a way we will not see following Connor’s suicide.
When Hannah was abducted, we were afraid that the same thing could happen to us, or the people around us. That drove us to action. The critical difference between these two tragedies is that we don’t all have to live with the fear that we might commit suicide, so we stay silent and unengaged instead of moving towards change.
It isn’t that we don’t care about Connor; we care about Connor and his friends and family. We just don’t care enough about the section of our community struggling with depression and mental health issues; it’s hard to see, and so frequently marginalized that we can imagine we aren’t touched by these problems, or that Connor was an outlier. The truth is that Connor was only an outlier in that he chose to take action, not in that he had those feelings. So many people in our community have struggled at one point, but we don’t see it because mental health problems are something we hide — to be shouted into the anonymous void of Yik Yak when things get bad enough, but brushed under the carpet when the friends are over.
We have failed as a university to create a space where students feel like they can admit to being depressed, feeling suicidal, or experiencing loneliness on grounds. Even if most students would say they don’t view depression as a weakness, we haven’t armed our student body to recognize and respond to warning signs. We haven’t trained each other to be active listeners, or to take interest in our friends’ and hall-mates’ wellbeing. We haven’t learned which things we say and actions we take are harmful, because if we believe that everybody we talk to is also basically happy, then where’s the harm?
I understand how a member of our community can let the tragedy of a suicide just pass. Last February, when first year John Cusano took his life, I didn’t do anything. I thought for a moment how sad it was that this one person suffered so much and nobody found out and could help him. I didn’t think about it any more than that — I had to look up his name to write this essay. In the time that has passed since then, my life has changed a lot, and I’ve struggled with depression and battled suicidal thoughts. I still do. I’ve learned the hard way that John, Connor and I aren’t alone. There are many people in our community struggling, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it or sharing my feelings with other members of the community, so I shouldn’t expect them to.
There is no individual or group to point a finger at — not even the administration — for our lack of understanding and support, but it is our responsibility as a community to learn not only from Hannah’s disappearance but from Connor’s death as well, and come together to demand that we make empathetic and proactive treatment of mental health issues a cornerstone of our student life programming from Orientation through graduation and beyond. If you aren’t moved to make our community feel safer for the one student every year or two who takes his or her own life, then do it for the hundreds of students around Grounds who have struggled or continue to struggle with depression and suicidal feelings, and have felt that they had nobody to turn to.
To be a Community of Trust we must each not only consider ourselves trustworthy, but also be able to trust someone else. We have a long way to go before that will be true of the University. Let’s not wait for another suicide or attempt before we start making things better.
This open letter was written by a member of the University’s Class of 2015.