Haunting Questions About the Rutgers Suicide

A Shakespearean tragedy in New Jersey

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    NEWSLETTERS

    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    People participate in a candlelight vigil for Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi at Brower Commons on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick.

    The suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi was a stunning and haunting tragedy. 

    Like in a Shakespearean play, a  tangle of events led to the horrible conclusion of the 18-year-old freshmen’s life. The grim words describing  any tragedy are “what if” -- and in Tyler’s case those words might be: What if he sought help or help was offered to him before he jumped off the Washington Bridge. It wasn’t. He leaped. He died.   

    Of course, we don’t know whether anything would have helped in this case. But, clearly, this young freshman’s desperate condition was not detected, and that is sad. 

    He was videotaped by his roommate having sex with another man -- and the roommate streamed it live on the internet. Tyler couldn’t bear it. 

    It is ironic that, at a time when awareness seems to be growing among college and university executives of the need for addressing the suicide problem, that so many students don’t come in for help. 

    The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a website for people contemplating suicide to call in and get counseling. Ann Haas, director of prevention for the group, told me: “It’s an unspeakable tragedy that so many young people who need help don’t seek it.”

    The country needs more extensive outreach programs, she says, but she doesn’t fault college authorities. She said: “More and more campuses are trying to reach out to students, to engage them. But the pressures of an uncertain economy are affecting college programs to help students -- and the students themselves.”

    “The universities lack funds to pursue more effective prevention programs---and many individual students are anxious and often depressed by the economic difficulties and competitive pressures they face to afford and stay in school. The root causes of student suicides include depression and anxiety. These can be treated. Bi-polar disorder and mental illnesses can be factors too. And substance abuse.” 

    Ms. Haas says that bullying can be a cause of suicide -- in the context of depression.   Her organization, she says, exists mainly on small contributions of $100 or $200, which she says shows that suicide prevention is on the agenda of many Americans.

    “We can really help these people," Haas said. "It’s heart-breaking to see bright, young people who can’t go through another day. That makes the tragedies that much worse.”
     
    How strange that the news of Tyler’s death coincided with the beginning of a new campaign by Rutgers called “Project Civility.”  The campaign was planned to feature  panels and lectures to raise awareness about the importance of respect, compassion and courtesy in everyday life.

    We can wonder what if this videotape had not been made -- what if, in the spirit of tolerance, respect, compassion and courtesy, Tyler’s privacy had been respected.

    As a poet once observed, the saddest words of word or pen are: “It might have been.”