October 14. Jack and Mario’s “Bon Jovi” themed pajama party. The party idea was idiotic in theory but that’s why everyone loved it. We’re all drunk off gin-bucket and other variations of alcohol mixed with something else, juice or maybe soda. The music is blaring from the living room. Everyone’s here. All of our friends. In a happy, drunken daze we’re all smiling and dancing and “Hey Ya” is playing in the background, a classic song of adolescence.
But something is missing.
I feel it, and I know Becca feels it.
What is it?
He should be here, I think to myself. He’s missing the party. He would love this.
He should be here.
Song change. I can’t remember what it was at this point. We continued dancing anyway.
Sunday, April 3 was a very gray day. The skies on the east side of France where I had been living for the spring semester were just as gray as they had been in the cold, fake-spring of New York. But despite all the clouds and lack of sun, April 3 started out as a happy day.
Besançon, the town that I had made my second home, was celebrating France’s annual Carnaval, a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. There were big floats and face-painted dancers marching down Grande Rue for hours, throwing confetti in the faces of street go-ers. By the time I left, I was covered in it, colorful and content. I had eaten a hotdog in a baguette (an American classic French-ified) and met up with my friends for this joyful event. I was happy. Everything felt like it was coming together. Spring would soon be in bloom.
I went home and relaxed for the rest of the evening before dinner with my host-mom Joëlle. I don’t remember what we ate but we spent the rest of the evening together. She was watching a French sitcom while I worked to finish a writing assignment, ironically about what happiness means to people.
Just as I was finishing up and having Joëlle check over my grammar, my best friend Kate messaged me: “Are you home? I need to talk to you,” she wrote on Facebook. We hadn’t talked that much in a while and I was excited to finally get a chance to FaceTime with her. I automatically assumed she wanted to vent about boyfriend problems or drama in Crispell suite 212. “Just let me finish up my homework and then I’ll give you a call,” I wrote back.
Little did I know that the news she would be giving me 20 minutes later would be the worst news I’d hear all year.
My phone started ringing. It was Kate finally calling me.
“Why are we just doing an audio call? Is the camera not working? I’ll try to call back again.” I was confused as to why she’d chosen to keep the screen black so I couldn’t see her.
“We don’t need the video right now,” Kate said, not trying to sound too stern, but I could hear the tautness in her voice. “I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?” I was starting to get really nervous. My heart was sinking into my stomach before I even knew what she was going to say.
I heard her voice starting to tremble.
“Tom killed himself.”
I managed to let a “What?” escape from my lips. And then I burst into tears.
According to Emory Cares 4 U, a university-wide suicide prevention effort at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses per year and one in 10 college students has made a suicide plan. The highest rate of suicide remains among the white community at 84 percent. Men also constitute the majority of suicides at a whopping 80 percent. A study from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from 2015 reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 24. Tom fell into all of these categories.
My best friend Jess, who was inseparable with Tom the past two years leading up to his death, told me that he did seek help from the counseling center on campus, but that conversation happened two springs ago, a year before his suicide. Maybe at some point he gave up on seeking help, but of that, I can’t be sure.
The fall semester before I left to study abroad, my friends and I had begun to notice the small scars etched horizontally at the tops of his wrists. Jess once asked him what they were, trying to get something out of him, wanting to help but not directly confronting the subject at hand. “Oh,” he’d laugh. “Holly just pushed me into a bush when we were drunk.” We knew these were lame excuses, but we didn’t know how to deal with what was really going on. Not long before his death, my friends told me the cuts were getting worse: vertical, longer, deeper, redder.
But how do you confront this? It’s hard to tell a friend that they need to get help. Or to get them to admit that something is bothering them. Why is it so hard for us to talk about mental illness and suicide? What can we do to end this stigma? To help people who are showing warning signs of being suicidal?
It is something that I, myself, have questioned time and time again — not only as a student and a friend, but as a young, aspiring journalist keenly aware that the media might be making this problem worse. Deaths are written about and then forgotten. But this does no justice to the issue at hand.
The tragedy of Tom’s death both surprised me and didn’t surprise me. I didn’t know which felt worse. I just knew that both sides felt awful. It felt terrible having none of my close friends around me, not even my family. I didn’t want to stop crying. But I had to call Jack to tell him what happened, too. No one had called him yet. At this point, we had been dating about six months, and had been working together at The New Paltz Oracle since our sophomore year.
Jack had just seen Tom the night before at a party of his. He was in the library when I tried calling him. He didn’t pick up at first. When I finally made him aware of the urgency, he called me from the lecture center, where thankfully he was sitting down when I told him what happened. He was silent for a few seconds, unable to fathom what it was I was telling him. He was speechless, confused.
I had interrupted him in the middle of working on a column for The Oracle that following week, which was originally planned to be a comedic take on the upcoming presidential election. But Tom’s death changed everything. He wrote a memorial column, “For Tom O’Rourke.” He also wrote the news brief about Tom’s death. The only information he had to go on was that followed the email from the Office of the President alerting the campus community about a student death.
Like all of our friends, Jack felt overcome by disbelief and an unwaning feeling of surrealness. It took him the entire day that following Monday to write the brief that, when finished, didn’t even reach 300 words. The fact of the matter was that he was writing concrete news on paper, making the situation that much more real for him. There was hardly a bubble of disillusionment anymore.
“The article would read as a fact to the community, so it became fact to me,” he said.
The topic of suicide was not something that Jack thought about often. But after Tom passed away, Jack became hypersensitive to suspect others in potential distress.
“I started to think more about it,” he said. “How can someone feel this kind of pain, and are there others out there feeling this way, too?”
Karla Vermeulen, an assistant professor of psychology at SUNY New Paltz, says that in psychological counseling, when professionals experience the death or suicide of a patient, they experience something called “vicarious trauma.” This is similar for journalists writing about the subject.
“We take on emotions, pain, compassion, and we also experience signs of distress,” she said. “Similar to that of experiencing depression ourselves.”
By the time Jack finally finished the brief, he felt worn out and exhausted. He was glad that his part in writing it was over and done. But Jack, as a journalist and as a friend, felt powerless and impatient. Nothing he could do or say would make anything right again. When would things go back to normal? Could they ever be the same again? Happy hour and Italian Club, two extracurriculars Tom was very much a part of, wouldn’t and couldn’t be the same.
As journalists, Vermeulen says that we tend to take on the role of the “tough guy.” Or at least we try to: “Journalists say, ‘I can handle it…’ but that can take a toll on you over time.”
While writing the column for Tom may have offered Jack some catharsis, it also continues to serve him as a reminder every time he looks at his Twitter, where it is pinned at the top.
“Whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, it’s always there,” he told me. “But I know I won’t take it down for a long time.”
When the brief on Tom was finally published on April 7, it read almost exactly as the campus-wide email did: “[the student] was found unresponsive,” and “a cause of death is pending.” These are by no means lies, but they are more like half-truths in my mind. The word suicide wasn’t used. Everyone knew what was happening, what had happened, and yet we couldn’t even disclose the information in the campus paper. It boggled my mind that such an important, crucial topic could go undiscussed.
In Jack’s column for Tom, he talked about how kind, smart and likeable Tom was, how much everyone loved him and how hard and gloomy the world became once he was gone. It was extremely heartfelt, and Jack’s voice shone through, but the word suicide still went unmentioned. Jack was afraid of overstepping any boundaries. As a writer for the student paper, he didn’t know if he would even be allowed.
The stigma behind mental illness and suicide is still so great that it makes it hard for people to talk about and to raise awareness. In this, it is difficult for journalists to raise awareness as well. Would writing about suicide help the problem or simply make it worse? Journalists want to prevent suicide contagion, but because the aftereffects of writing about it are so unclear, it makes it that much more difficult. The last thing Jack would have wanted was to cause contagion, and our editor-in-chief Kristen Warfield and news editor Melanie Zerah agreed.
“I’m extremely concerned about suicide copycats and people who feel empowered by the actions of others without trying to get help for the mental health issues they’re dealing with,” Jack told me. “It’s one of those things, where, as a journalist, I’d be destroyed to have influenced or caused, even inadvertently.”
For this exact reason, the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University has an entire section of their website dedicated to helping journalists grappling with the task of reporting on suicide. A link on their site to Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide (RRS) offers recommendations on the most cautious and progressive ways for reporting on this sore, and very raw, subject.
These recommendations were “developed by leading experts in suicide prevention and in collaboration with international suicide prevention and public health organizations, schools of journalism, media organizations and key journalists as well as Internet safety experts,” according to the site’s about page. They are based on more than 50 international studies on suicide contagion, with lead partners including AFSP, Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, among others.
According to RRS, certain types of of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals, and is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage. Using dramatic headlines and images and sensationalizing or glamorizing a death can also increase the rate of additional suicides and sometimes causes suicide contagion or “copycat suicide.” But when suicides are covered carefully, “even briefly,” public perceptions of suicide are positively changed and myths are corrected, which helps encourage those at risk to seek the help they need.
More specifically, the RRS suggest that rather than using sensationalized headlines such as “Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide,” for example, it is better and less risky to minimize the prominence of the death with a headline like “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27.” Using flashy words such as “epidemic,” “skyrocketing” and other terms like this are also discouraged. It is better to include actual data and use non-sensational words such as “rise” or “higher.” The RRS recommends offering hope rather than glamorization or heroism when reporting on suicide. Oftentimes, hope is the only thing people need: to know that they are not alone, and that there are other ways to relieve themselves of whatever pain they are feeling.
Vermeulen has studied suicide in the media, and agrees with expert resources like RRS. Sensationalism and memorialization can be difficult and unpredictable — yet there should be more transparency about the issues surrounding suicide and mental illness in media coverage, she says. In this, there should be clarity in that people know exactly where to go if they feel they are at risk of hurting themselves and to know that there are places on campus or in their community where they can go to find help, to feel safe and to know that they are not alone.
Victor Schwartz, the chief medical officer of the JED Foundation, a national nonprofit with a mission to protect the emotional health of and prevent suicide in teens and young adults, emphasized how important it is to teach responsible reporting and to educate people of all ages about mental health. This includes making those struggling aware of the resources that are in place to help them.
“Getting help can make a really big difference,” Schwartz said. “That’s the crux of it. People should know when they should get help, and how to access help.”
In a 2012 panel discussion entitled “Suicide on College Campuses,” the DART Center’s executive director Bruce Shapiro moderated a group of experts on the issue. One of them was Alison Malmon, the founder and executive director of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that empowers students to open up about mental health with hopes to educate others and encourage help-seeking. As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001, Malmon lost her older brother, Brian, a senior student at Columbia University, to suicide. At the panel, she referred to a column written in his memoriam and published in The Daily Spectator, Columbia’s student-run paper, entitled “Student Leaves Legacy of Performance, Wit.”
The column, written by Dan Laidman, immediately informs the readers of who Brian Malmon was, where he was from, along with the fact that his death was ruled a suicide. From the get-go, readers are aware of the degree to which people cared about Malmon and the kind of impact he had on the world around him. But the readers are also told directly about the tragedy that happened to him. The column is written in a straight forward manner. There is no gray area. Though we may not have known Malmon, and even for those who did, we are given some insight into the type of person he was. We get to know him, at least a little bit, and we empathize.
In a lot of ways, Malmon reminded me of Tom. In the memoriam, Laidman writes, “His friends described him as ‘hilariously funny,’ ‘funny as hell,’ ‘dry and witty,’ and a ‘source of mirth.’ They also say that underneath the humor was a pain he kept hidden from almost everyone around him.” Laidman cites Andy Miara, a friend of Malmon’s, who said that, “…in spite of his creative sense of humor, [he] could be counted on to provide down to earth advice.”
For those who knew Tom, anyone could agree that his degree of hilarity could not be paralleled. Between his spontaneous and outrageous stories to his Long Island mom impression, he could have you laughing to tears in a matter of minutes. For this, Tom was a great source of comic relief, but he was also an excellent confidant and a genuine pal to everyone that loved him. He was an ear that listened, while also being able to provide comforting advice to boot.
Maybe columns like these can be perceived as controversial, but they almost seem to be inherent in the natural grieving process. We as young people want to be able to express our losses in a way that means something more to just us, something that makes us feel that the ones we’ve lost are still there with us. Maybe that’s what Jack was feeling when he was writing his column.
On April 13, a week and a half after Tom passed away, my friends held a ceremony for him. Our friend Theresa played “Clair de Lune” on the piano and afterward, everyone released balloons into the sky. I wished so badly that I could have been there. In retrospect, I should have gone out and found a balloon at the store and released it from wherever in the world I was. I so badly felt the need to be a part of that something that everyone else had been a part of, to have that feeling of being able to say goodbye.
Given that several of us had been studying abroad last spring, I found myself wishing that all my friends could have been in one place during that hard and awful time. There were a handful of moments where I felt completely alone, yearning for New Paltz, the place I call home, and all the people I knew would be there, too. But I suppose that’s where my writing this comes into play. Call it what you will — I call it therapy. This is my way of dishing things out, of getting my thoughts out in the best way I know I can. It’s provided me a sense of release.
Tom’s suicide was the fifth over the course of six SUNY New Paltz semesters, starting in the fall of 2013.
It felt to me that these five student deaths were almost brushed under the rug by the administration and the media. They were briefly talked and written about, and then seemingly never again — until I found an Oct. 2, 2014 article from The Oracle about the fall 2013 death of Adam Metzger, who had been an environmental science major at SUNY New Paltz.
Devastated and impacted by her son’s death, Naomi Metzger started the Adam’s Hope House Foundation (AHH), a nonprofit organization with the goal of providing “a solution to the ever-growing pandemic of suicide,” according to their website. AHH held events that September that included an awareness talk, a fundraiser at McGillicuddy’s on Main Street, as well as a walk and mental health wellness fair at Hasbrouck Park. It is organizations like these that help to stand up and make the change, whether it is in our own neighborhood or across the nation, like other programs such as Malmon’s Active Minds, which has chapters at universities across the United States including other SUNY schools such as SUNY Stony Brook, Brockport, Cortland, Old Westbury, Oneonta, Oswego and Potsdam. But not at New Paltz?
This is now where the New Paltz Association for Suicide Awareness and Prevention (NP ASAP) steps in. Dan Holohan, a best friend and suitemate of Tom’s, was there in their Crispell suite when he was found. Though Dan felt lost and helpless, he was overcome by inspiration to raise awareness about an issue that became very near and dear to him. He wanted to help and provide solace to those who may be suffering, but to better help the friends of that person recognize the signs, too.
After a long, bureaucratic process with the Student Association, NP ASAP will be officially chartered next spring semester, with plans to hold a “love yourself” themed event at Cafeteria on Valentine’s Day, to screen films including an AFSP college documentary co-sponsored by the organization’s local chapter and to hold an AFSP Out of the Darkness walk right here on campus in late April.
NP ASAP is not only teaming up with the local chapter of AFSP, but with the psychological counseling center on campus, which will help the club host events for suicide prevention training such as QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), and the Maya Gold Foundation, a local non-profit kickstarted by the family of Maya Gold, a 15-year-old from New Paltz who died by suicide in October of 2015, which will co-sponsor and collaborate on events with NP ASAP as well.
This is where suicide prevention organizations and the media can intertwine toward one common goal. Simply covering Out of the Darkness walks, NP ASAP and other suicide prevention events can raise the word about these important efforts. They can further show the community and readers how people come together for causes they care about, whether they have lost a friend or loved one to suicide, have attempted suicide or have struggled with mental illness themselves. That’s what these events are for: coming together, grieving together and working for a better, more hopeful tomorrow together. Writing about it simply puts it into words so these efforts can reach more people.
That’s where I think columns like the one in memoriam of Brian Malmon come into play. They don’t have to be so cut and dry like the news. They are allowed to be heartfelt, sensitive, thoughtful and nostalgic. They are allowed to emit both hope and grief, but mostly truth. They connect more with the individuals reading them on a deeper level because they are more personal. People like Malmon and Tom are not just another statistic. They were people who were both very much loved and who the world continues to miss dearly now that they are no longer here.
The memories of who they were deserve to live on, and thus we have groups like Active Minds and NP ASAP. This doesn’t answer all the questions to the massive gray area that is suicide, how we report it and how we raise awareness about it, but maybe this is where we start. By writing more openly about suicide at The Oracle and by talking honestly about it within the comfort of safe groups like NP ASAP, more voices can be heard, and hopefully more lives can be saved.
It’s been a hard year for everyone who knew and loves Tom — that much I know for certain. I also know I will never forget April 3, as hard as I try. Everyone had told me that the unseasonable April snow almost seemed normal for a time as confusing and strange as when Tom died. To have the first snow of the year that same week somehow made clairvoyant sense.
When I moved back up to New Paltz in early June, I noticed the new tree with a green bag around its stump to give it water and nutrients. It was a young tree, and it was Tom’s.
Living across the street from Hasbrouck Park, I’ve seen his tree change through the seasons: from summer’s greenest of greens, to fall’s oranges and yellows and golds, to the crux of winter, where all trees including Tom’s are leafless and frail.
My friends and I have spent some time sitting beneath Tom’s tree, illuminated by the battery-operated lights while listening to “Clair de Lune” and just remembering, reminiscing and simply wishing he were sitting there with us, drinking chocolate milk and making us laugh until we’d cry as he always did.
Despite always missing him, I know that the future is filled with hope. I know that his tree will blossom into vibrant shades of green once again come the spring, just as I know that NP ASAP’s vision and goal is incredibly important. The future is bright and filled with people who want to make a change. And it’s all for Tom.