The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)

The Walking Wounded

Mary Townsend

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

When, in 1774, at the age of twenty-five, Goethe published the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the frenzied affection with which the youth of that age greeted it was at first a surprise and eventually a horror to the author. There were Werther china figurines, eau de Werther, a Werther breadbox. Napoleon himself called Goethe in to talk Werther-shop.1 But the more charming aspects of the fandom were part and parcel with this further phenomenon: the young men dressing up in their hero’s blue coat and yellow vest, leaping into rivers or blowing their brains out, book in hand.

Although we still speak of “the Werther effect,” we lack a novel on which to pin the rashes, contagions, clusters, and epidemics of suicides that take place now seemingly every year in the American educational system. These are occurring not only among the college-age youth, but even among sixteen-year-olds who find high school quite enough and wish for no more. Although these suicides form a small fraction of the total sua sponte deaths in the United States, suicide clusters usually involve people in their college years.2 Suicide takes place, too, among professors and adjuncts.3 And though news coverage focuses on wealthier universities, the suicides are not limited to them.4

For teachers like me, the details of these deaths often come thirdhand. Our information is mostly limited to official e-mails, which (if they mention death at all) often do not even name the dead; they certainly don’t give the cause. Yet while one simply never learns that much about what happened (it was only by accident, for instance, that I learned the first death of 2014 was a suicide by hanging), the volume on health services news gets turned right up. Various incarnations of daily, weekly, monthly e-mails from recently convened or amplified offices and sub-offices, offices you’ve never heard of, remind you of gym hours, point out new on-trend exercise classes or ever-farther-afield hiking trips, cheerfully advertise things such as “Massage Mondays” or new mindfulness classes; the e-mails attempt to be tactful about the expansion of the suicide hotline.

This very quietness is in fact part of newly instituted official best practices, the idea being that the less you hear about death or how it was brought about, the more likely you are to wish to stay alive. Harvard’s “Means Matter” campaign recommends working with local and student media to avoid “detailed descriptions” of how a suicide takes place or giving too many “personal details” about the suicide’s life that might lead the reader to identify with the deceased; they warn against presenting suicide as “common, normal, or acceptable.”5 After one of the Palo Alto high school suicides in 2015, the adults decided to erase the memorials the students had snuck in to write on the chalkboards.6 The silence spreads farther afield: Although Northern Michigan University’s policy that students are officially prohibited from discussing potential self-harm with other students sits at a terrifyingly absurd extreme, I’ve been counseled to explain to my students that they have to stop talking before they tell me about suicide ideation, and refer them instead to the health services office.7

Even aside from being a disastrous way for a community to mourn, the official evasiveness on the subject of a recent death is pragmatically flawed: Among the students, detailed news spreads in minutes anyway by means of location-based social media apps tailored for college campuses, where users check in anonymously. It’s also galling spiritual fakery: One walks the campus pathways and sees no visible memorials of the dead, while you don’t even know if the latest death is the last in the cluster or not; the false cheer of passersby seems to harden into a rictus grin. The result of this is the peculiarly gothic atmosphere that develops when a bunch of people insist there is nothing gothic about life. Without reliable news, teachers make what trivial gestures are still available: giving the best friend extra weeks for the paper; stopping class to make sure the person who just ran from the room is all right and the friend network is alerted; apologizing in horror when (no name being given yet to that morning’s dead) while taking attendance you announce the name of the departed.

We talk about a suicide contagion’s progression across a given community as though it were a biological phenomenon, an epidemic without conscious direction. The desire to commit suicide is uniformly understood as a sickness, one limited to a relatively small number of ill-fated individuals, whose triumphant return to good health can be achieved by identifying and naming their sickness as a Sickness: If the organism is treated with exercise, nutrition, or drugs, the reasoning goes, the self will follow suit back into good order. Therapy is where one gets one’s head back on straight, the head back into the game; in short, it is the place where one recovers one’s mental health. To the healthy, we insist the Sick are not normal; to the ill, we stress that sickness is perfectly fine and can happen to anyone. America is full of communities with the funds and the manpower and the sincere desire, when faced with a string of deaths, to try more than a few rounds of something a little different—as long as it fits this basic script. Nevertheless, the suicides continue. For once, the Why on earth? ought to be as urgent a question as the What in God’s name to do?

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Endnotes

My thanks to my student M.H., whose invitation to speak at Tulane University’s Mental Health Festival precipitated these reflections; thanks also to my Existentialism class who lived through the rash of suicides of 2014, and in particular to H.B. for her thoughtful support for this essay.

A previous version of this article mis-stated Goethe’s age in 1774 as twenty-four; it has been corrected here to twenty-five.

  1. Daniel Purdy, ed., Goethe Yearbook 17 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), 9.
  2. Romeo Vitelli, “When Suicide Comes in Clusters,” Media Spotlight (blog), Psychology Today, August 28, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201208/when-suicides-come-in-clusters.
  3. Jennifer Young, “Another Drowning in the Adjunct Pool,” The Offing, May 2, 2016, https://theoffingmag.com/dead-letter-office/another-drowning-in-the-adjunct-pool/.
  4. Julie Scelfo, “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection,” New York Times, July 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html?_r=0.
  5. For the need to restrict means in general, see the Means Matter campaign, “Recommendations for Colleges and Universities,” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/recommendations/colleges/. For media, they follow the recommendations of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in limiting news of means and so the manner of death: “Safe and Effective Messaging for Suicide Prevention,” http://www.sprc.org/sites/default/files/migrate/library/SafeMessagingrevised.pdf. See also the work of the JED Foundation’s Campus Program, http://www.thecampusprogram.org/learn-about-campusprogram, who incorporates the work of Means Matter into their non-profit program for schools.
  6. Hanna Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” The Atlantic, December 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/12/the-silicon-valley-suicides/413140/.
  7. Robby Soave, “Northern Michigan University Might Have the ‘Most Dangerous’ Speech Code Ever,” Reason.com, September 22, 2015, http://reason.com/blog/2016/09/22/northern-michigan-university-might-have.

Mary Townsend is a visiting assistant professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Her book, The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic, is forthcoming from Lexington Books in 2017.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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