TCU grapples with recent student suicides

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    Four times in 18 months, TCU students read these solemn words in emails from the former vice chancellor, Dr. Don Mills. The first email was about Amanda Bebout who died in January of 2010, then Stephen Scherer, who died October. Hayden Bowers died in April of 2011, and Haley Wolcott died in May of the same year.

    All of their deaths were ruled as suicide.

    As each email sent ripples of shock and grief throughout the campus, faculty and staff have become more and more concerned.

    “Four? In 18 months?” contemplated the new vice chancellor, Dr. Cavins-Tull, her eyes gazing out the window of the office she has only occupied for three months. “That’s not everything that happens here, but it takes a lot out of people when a member of your community… has completed a suicide.”

    Before last year, a TCU student hadn’t committed suicide in 12 years, said Dr. Eric Wood, a psychologist at the TCU counseling center. “Clearly, the context makes it concerning,” he explained.

    For many members of the TCU community, the numbers seem to speak for themselves. Something must be wrong. Something has changed. However, Dr. Wood points out that the numbers are misleading.

    “It’s very rare for a university our size to go 12 years without a suicide, which is very, very fortunate,” he said. “It is rare to have a gap like that.”

    Others might say these suicides appear to be connected or spurred by each other, a phenomenon psychologists call a “suicide cluster.” However, Wood disputes that theory because those in a “cluster” all attempt to complete suicide in the same way. Rather, he said, these numbers seem to reflect a national trend.

    “I don’t know if it has anything to do with TCU because all 30 colleges we compare ourselves to are saying their numbers are going up,” he said

    On average, 4,400 people between the ages 10 to 24 lose their lives to suicide each year, making it the third most common cause of death for that age group, according to the U.S. Center for Disease and Control.

    In a study from 2001, 53% of students surveyed reported experienced what they would label “depression” since the start of college. 

    Dr. Efton Park, a statistics professor, said that the spike in student suicides at TCU was most likely a “random fluctuation” and that the sample size was not large enough for substantive conclusions.

    However, random fluctuation or not, Cavins-Tull said TCU is working tirelessly to find ways to combat student suicide and depression. Personally, raising awareness about mental health is one of her main concerns for her first semester here, she said.

    “You can imagine that this campus is feeling exhausted and sad and scared that it could happen again, which is why we try to do more and more and more to prepare people and avoid it,” she said.

    The university’s most recent (and perhaps largest ever) response to the issue of mental health is called the “Hope Initiative,” which Cavins-Tull describes as an “umbrella of programming” that aims to help students, faculty and staff understand mental health and identify at-risk students. The main goal of the Hope Initiative is to raise awareness and begin an open dialogue.

    One specific program that falls under this is QPR, a one-hour training session that teaches people how to “question” their friends’ changing behavior, “persuade” them to seek help, and “refer” them to resources such as the counseling center. All of the residence hall staff, the student affairs offices and Greek life offices have been trained, and  Cavins-Tull hopes to eventually train housekeepers, dining services employees and even concerned students. 

    Steering of friends to the counseling center is vital, according to Wood.

    “Most of the time, we have people come here because someone told them to. They have known the center existed but it took someone’s suggestion,” he said.

    Another facet to the Hope Initiative is mental health screenings, which will be offered twice a semester. Students can voluntarily fill out a quick survey, discuss their results with a counselor and then decide if they would like to make an appointment at the counseling center.

    The counseling center works with the health center to help identify students who are suffering the physiological symptoms of depression, such as over-sleeping and body pains.

    Additionally, TCU is hiring another psychologist, hoping to eliminate waiting lists. They are extending office hours. As always, those in crisis can get help 24/7. They hope to begin offering four different group therapy sessions soon. All services are free.

    Often times, Cavins-Tull said, depression and suicide is not even on the radar for college students.

    “Nobody ever thinks that their friends or a member of an organization could [attempt suicide]. And yet we don’t know…sometimes in the cases here, people didn’t even realize it until it was too late,” she said.

    That element of shock is a troubling aspect to the tragedies that have occurred at TCU in the span of 18 months. Why those students? To many, nothing seemed wrong.

    Looking at the four students who lost their lives, there seems to be no correlation. Two were women, two were men. Two were involved with Greek life, two were not. They had different majors, different interests and different involvements.

    For Cavins-Tull, the apparent randomness of the problem is disheartening and frustrating.

    “There’s no good formula for who is going to attempt suicide out there, which puts us on notice, as a campus, that you can’t ignore those who appear to be social. You just never know,” said Cavins-Tull. She said mental health cannot be judged off outward appearance.

    According to Wood, she’s right; it is impossible to stereotype, pigeonhole or try to anticipate the people who may suffer from depression or contemplate suicide. That’s why it is so important to monitor yourself and your friends, Cavins-Tull said.

    “It’s not going to cost you. Just come get the information,” urged Wood. “Sometimes students come for a one-time-only thing, and that’s absolutely fine. It doesn’t have to be this big, bad problem. In fact, depression can be triggered by nothing at all; everything can be absolutely okay. But without treatment, it will only get worse,” he said.

    To schedule an appointment with the TCU counseling center, call 817-257-7863. If you are in need of immediate assistance, call the campus police at 817-257-7777 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

    If you are in a non-crisis situation but simply seek to talk to someone, call the Tarrant County Mental Health Association’s “Warm Line” at 817-546-7826 between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. A volunteer mentor will talk with you. The mentors provide a listening ear and supportive dialogue, and can route you to a crisis line if needed.

    If you cannot make the call, reach out to an RA, professor or friend. As Dr. Mills said, each member strengthens our community. We must be strong with each other, for each other.

    The Tragedy Left Behind

    “It’s so weird when news is about yourself.”

    Sarah Scherer, a junior nutrition major, recalls that cold day in October 2010 that she first received a TCU email notifying her of the death of her brother, Stephen.

    Then, newspapers began to call. She couldn’t believe her small, close-knit family was the center of people’s scrutiny. She couldn’t believe her brother was dead.

    Growing up, Sarah and Stephen did everything together. They spent hours together playing sports and building structures with Legos. When they got older, they began to competitively shoot rifles together. Sarah competes for TCU, and Stephen shot rifle in the 2008 Summer Olympics. A natural leader, Stephen played a huge role in the family by taking care of Sarah and their single mother.

    “Stephen was an extremely funny person,” Scherer says with a smile. “His middle name was Isaac, which means ‘laughter.’ It was absolutely perfect.”

    Stephen did not face any problems until he enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point his freshman year. Within a few months, his demeanor shifted, and his happiness faltered. He felt many people at the academy were thirsty for power and made decisions that hurt many people.

    “My brother is an extremely strong person, he’s extremely capable. But the hardest thing for him there was seeing wrong things happening to people and not being able to do anything,” Scherer explained, subconsciously slipping into present tense.

    Scherer said her brother often mentioned West Point students committing suicide. Many of her friends have reported the same thing. They often tell her the best part of going to West Point was getting through it. She cannot be sure if this is what changed Stephen, but she feels it is very possible.

    Stephen fell into a depression, and knew he had to leave West Point. When Sarah started her freshman year at TCU, Stephen followed suit, transferring in as a junior. He loved TCU and living in Texas. He became involved on campus and dreamed of joining the Army. But his depression resurged.

    A week before his death, he was put on a suicide watch and admitted to a nearby hospital. He talked to a doctor for five minutes and then was released from the hospital. Stephen was embarrassed and furious.

    “After that, he was never going to want counseling…it was too late,” says Scherer. “On the way home from the hospital, he told my mom and I that he was ‘already dead.’ He felt like he couldn’t love people anymore…but that obviously wasn’t true. He loved people to the extreme.”

    Stephen shot himself the following week.

    “Everything changed in one second,” Scherer recalls, after pausing a long moment to make sense of her jumbled memories. “It was a shock to the mind and body. My first response was to make sure my mom was going to be okay.”

    Her eyes slightly watering and her composure faltering ever so slightly, she admits that she has never really allowed herself to go through a grieving process.

    “When I’m alone is the only time I’m really allowed to be me…it’s the only time I ever feel like I can feel my real emotions. A lot of those times are tough,” she says. “If something sparks a memory for me, I push it down and deal with it later. I know I shouldn’t…but everyone goes through stuff differently.”

    Her strong faith in God is what keeps Scherer going. Smiling, she tells me confidently that she knows that Stephen is in heaven. His faith was unbreakable, even in the end. His favorite Bible verse was Jude 24:25, which reads that God “is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.” Scherer does not think her brother “fell,” he simply left this world.

    “Raising awareness is good, but humans can’t totally solve this problem. Suicide is not of this world,” says Scherer. “We, as a campus, need to ask God to intervene.”

    Three months after Stephen died, Sharon Bebout found herself feeling all the same emotions as the Scherers. Shock. Disbelief. Absolute grief. 

    Sharon Bebout lost her daughter Amanda in January. Amanda was very involved with church, her nursing major and Gamma Phi Beta. She was beautiful, with golden hair, bright blue eyes and a smiles that make others smile. She loved TCU and truly felt like she belonged. But as her mother puts it, “circumstances just became too overwhelming” for her daughter.

    “Amanda was always an easy child to have,” Bebout said on the phone, and I could hear the sad smile in her voice. “She was beautiful, fun-loving and caring. She wanted to try everything and do her best at it, whether it was academics or sports.” But, she was often too hard on herself, and she was so good-natured that she “didn’t have much edge” to take on difficulties.

    During her sophomore year of high school, Amanda spent time in the hospital for medical problems. Seeing what a difference nurses make in people’s lives, she realized what she wanted to do with her life. She hoped to someday become an oncology nurse.

    But when Amanda was arrested for a DWI in November 2009, her dreams of becoming a nurse were jeopardized, at best. Everything she had worked so hard for went to waste. She felt as if she failed everyone—herself, her family, God.

    “She thought it was the biggest mistake of her life,” Bebout said. “She really did try to handle things, but she was always one to help others and she didn’t tell people her problems.” 

    Her legal troubles in November were followed by spontaneous panic attacks during finals week. She experienced a death in the family at Christmas, and a hard break-up soon after. No one realized how much it all affected her. 

    “Over Christmas, I told her maybe she needed a counselor, but I didn’t even think of the TCU counseling center,” said Bebout. “I really think it could have saved her life.”

    At the beginning of her second semester, Amanda seemed okay. She was socializing during the week but avoiding parties, still ashamed of her DWI. But one long weekend, her mother realized she hadn’t heard from her daughter in a while. Sharon asked some of Amanda’s friends to go check on her.

    Amanda’s body was found in her bed.

    Because Amanda was such a happy, optimistic person, her friends thought she had been murdered. The first police reports suspected foul play. Nobody even considered that Amanda could have intentionally overdosed on sleeping pills.

    “I had no idea emotional pain could be this physically painful. It was almost numbing to the point where speaking and moving was impossible to do. I literally don’t even know how I was breathing on my own,” said Bebout, struggling to find words for her grief.

    It took over a month for Bebout to even physically voice the words, “Amanda committed suicide.” The very word “suicide” was painful to hear.

    “The last thing that I want is for people to say, ‘Oh, Amanda. The girl that committed suicide.’ Because she was beautiful girl who was just trying her best,” said her mother.

    Now, Bebout does everything she can to advocate suicide-prevention. She has talked to various people who have attempted suicide, and her family offers a memorial scholarship in the nursing school in Amanda’s name.

    “Maybe because I couldn’t save Amanda’s life…” she says, considering why she reaches out to others. “I didn’t choose to become vocal, I just saw her friends in such pain and I wanted to reach out to them. It was almost mutual.”

    Bebout keeps regular correspondence with the TCU counseling center and follows the university’s mental health programming.

    “Suicides happen at every college campus, but they aren’t handled as well as TCU handles them. TCU has been exceptional in responding to the students to offer help and find new ways to provide resources,” she says. “We all want to change the world. I’d be thrilled if TCU students could see what they could do as a college campus.”

    “People don’t understand what depression is. They say it’s just being sad. But it isn’t that. It’s so much more,” Bebout says.

    She says that the only way to help honor Amanda’s memory is to remove the stigma of mental health on campus. TCU has been proactive in their response, and students must follow suit, she says.

    “Don’t be afraid to ask for help for yourself, your friends, your family. If you’re going through a problem, go to the counseling center. See what they can do. There’s always hope, there’s always another option.”

    Students Battle Depression on Campus

    Almost every day, Maggie* struggles to get out of bed. She knows she has class, but she feels as if her body is weighed down, as if the world outside her window does not really exist. If she makes it to class or manages to make social plans on the weekends, it is a feat.

    Maggie, a sophomore psychology major who asked her name be changed to protect her chances of getting into graduate school, suffers from chronic depression.

    “Whenever I battle depression, I get physically sick,” Maggie offers as an apology as she coughs and sniffles. Her striking face is more pale than usual, her blond waves hanging limp around her strong jawline. The stress of a new school year has triggered her depression to flare up, she explains.

    But even more stressful than schoolwork is her fear of repeating what happened her freshman year.

    “I didn’t make any friends…I was turned into myself. I stress-slept. I missed three or four classes a week,” she says. “When you’re asleep and you hear your alarm going off, you simply don’t care. You say, ‘Alright, so I’m missing class today…yet another thing I’m fucking up.’”

    During her childhood, Maggie’s parents were extremely career-oriented, placing her in Pre-K when she was only one and a half. She quickly learned Spanish because she spent so much time with her nannies. Even at the age of four or five, she began to feel like a burden to her parents.

    “Even as a little child, I began to wonder that if I was dying, maybe my mom would care about me,” she says evenly.

    Maggie first started coping with depression when she was 13. She was familiar with depression; her mother suffers from it too.

    In high school, she began to experience panic attacks, often bursting into tears in class. She suffered from anorexia. During a softball game when she was 16, both of Maggie’s kneecaps shattered, weakened by malnutrition from her anorexia. Her passion for pitching shattered, too. She fell deeper and deeper into her depression.

    At one point, she bought a rope and kept it in her trunk.

    These “waves” of depression, as she describes them, followed her throughout high school and will affect her for the rest of her life.  The waves are “like a hurricane. You can’t see past anything you’re seeing now. Suicide is a very easy option,” she says.

    After years of dealing with depression, Maggie agreed to see a therapist and begin taking antidepressants when she was 16. Now, she says, she knows she can ride out the waves of depression.

    “It was hard for me to start taking medicine. I couldn’t believe I had to take a pill just to be myself,” she admits, reluctantly revealing her pill bottles hidden in a desk drawer. 

    “But my dad explained it to me that it was like a diabetic taking their insulin. Nobody chooses to be sick, nobody chooses to be depressed,” she says wearily, as if trying to convince herself.

    John*, a sophomore finance major who also agreed to be interviewed only if his name was changed, knows exactly how important antidepressants can be. They saved his life.

    Like Maggie, he began to suffer from chronic depression at 13. He nonchalantly mentions that he attempted suicide three time during high school. “I don’t remember why,” he says, forcefully smoking his second cigarette in twenty minutes. “I just really don’t.”

    At his lowest point, he strapped a belt around his neck, locked the door and stood on a chair. His plans came to a halt when his little brother knocked on the door.

    During John’s second semester of his freshman year, he realized he had to seek help.

    The TCU counseling center gave him a list of psychologists in the DFW area, and after he found a doctor he liked, John began a regiment of antidepressants.

    “My brain makes severely low amounts of serotonin, [a neurotransmitter thought to be related to feelings of well-being.] It makes about 20% the amount of most people, according to tests my psychiatrist did,” John explained matter-of-factly. “So when I started medicine, I was like, ‘Well, what the hell. Why not?’”

    The difference, John said with a smile, was “night and day” and “phenomenal.” Suddenly his life was transformed—he was able to competently work through conflicts, go to class and socialize on the weekends.

    John feels that TCU should offer depression-awareness seminars at the beginning of students’ first years. He also said TCU should publish lists of nearby psychologists for those who have more severe problems. 

    Similarly, Maggie has used the TCU counseling a few times but says she finds the resources insufficient for the student body.

    “There are 6 psychologists on campus, 1 psychiatrist, and 9,000 students. TCU needs to hire more psychologists because they have the money. It will keep students alive,” she said. She also desires group therapy sessions, which TCU plans to offer soon, as well as more counselors.

    Maggie deals with the fear of people finding out about her depression every day, which is why she asked that her name be changed.

    “It should be a feat that I go to school and I haven’t committed suicide and that I’m fighting,” she said proudly. “However, grad school sees my sickness as a liability. If someone finds out, and they tell somebody…” Her voice faltered. “I just have that fear all the time.”

    Cody*, a sophomore English major, shares the same fear of being judged for his struggle with depression. He agreed to be interviewed only if his identity was protected.

    “There’s such a stigma with going to counseling because it’s supposedly for people who are crazy or really have issues,” he said. “[Students at TCU] don’t want to talk about suicide or death. But no matter how painful it is, you have to talk about. It’s going to come up sooner or later.”

    Unlike Maggie, who suffers from chronic depression, Cody’s depression is specifically triggered by emotionally traumatic events.

    At the beginning of his freshman year at TCU, Cody had two close male friends, something he didn’t have in high school as a gay teen in Waco. But sometime in October, his friends inexplicably began to ignore his phone calls.

    When he finally asked his friends what was going on, they informed Cody that they were purposefully ignoring him and that he was “socially retarded.” They consequentially deleted him on Facebook.

    “To go from not having any friends and then have two really good friends and have them taken away from me….” Cody trailed off, his voice weakening. “It just destroyed me. I started letting myself go, I forgot to shave, I forgot to shower. I slept a lot and I stopped going to class. What was the point?”

    One night, Cody decided he was going to hang himself with a tie in his dorm room. He even picked out the particular one. But as he stepped towards his closet, he realized he could not do it.

    Cody’s suicidal impulses lasted throughout the next day, until someone asked how he was doing. He realized somebody would actually care if he were gone. He now says that is why he makes an effort to say hi to everyone he sees.

    “[Later,] I told my sister what I almost did, and she started bawling. She told me that was the most fucking selfish thing I could have done. She was right. It was too selfish,” he said, remorsefully staring at the ground. 

    Cody now regularly talks to his mother, who used to be college therapist at a nearby college. He prefers her emotional connection to the anonymity of the TCU health center.

    However, he says students who have no one should go to the health center and save their own lives. “Just reach out to anybody, talk to them,” he says. “You should never really be ashamed to ask for help, because your life is so valuable.”

    Echoing Cody, John emphasizes the importance of finding people to reach out to. He is a member of a social fraternity and says his brothers are always there for him.

    "Once time, I got really upset, and they literally would not leave my side until I stopped crying and went to sleep,” John said.

    Although he suffers depression, Cody is not afraid to talk about his problems with those who ask.

    “If someone asks me if I have attempted suicide, I’m not going to tell them no. Every story has chapters, and there are chapters of my life that closed. It might be in the story, but it doesn’t define the story. The story is what you make it.”

    The same is true for Maggie.

    “Things get better. And if they don’t, it’s not the end. The idea is really, really powerful,” she said with a smile. “Things….things get better.”

    This story was revised to accurately reflect the date of Amanda Bebout's DWI charges.