A Reflection on Death, Privilege, and The College Experience

6 May

When I committed to Northwestern in the spring of my senior year of high school, I imagined a multitude of joys and wonders.  I wanted to make the most of my four years at college; I wanted to make dozens of amazing friends, I wanted to cherish every single piece of knowledge I could, and I wanted to find a higher sense of purpose and calling in my life.

The untimely death of my peers was not something I had included in this idealized perception of my time here.

Surely, at Northwestern – the academic utopia for which I had always yearned – my studies would not be interrupted by e-mails lamenting the death of a fellow Wildcat.  Surely, at Northwestern - the land of milk and honey, as I envisioned it – I would not be forced to endure the emotional trauma of knowing that people I see every day are struggling so much that they simply could no longer bear it.  Surely, at Northwestern no one would be so compelled to end their own lives.

And yet, here I am, speechless as yet another classmate is gone, troubled to realize that I consider myself “fortunate” to only have been well-acquainted with one of three students who has died this year.

I didn’t know Dmitri Teplov.  I may very well have graduated without ever meeting or even interacting with him.  I may have met someone in ten years who would ask me if I knew him in college, and I would tell them the name didn’t even ring a bell.  But now this name connotes the perturbing reality that the community around this vaunted institution can be toxic.  Dmitri Teplov serves as a reminder that among all our joys and contentments here, there are others who fight daily battles to keep themselves alive.

As I’ve grappled with this tragedy, trying to make sense of something that I find infinitely perplexing, it has occurred to me that the meaning of this incident may ultimately boil down to that elusive buzzword that defines so much controversy and rhetoric at this university: privilege.  Not the economic or racial privilege that has created seemingly irreconcilable rifts among segments of our own student body, but a privilege that often fails to be seen for what it is.  It is the privilege – and the blessing – of mental health.

We don’t tend to think of mental health as a privilege.  Those who haven’t experienced issues surrounding mental health would probably see it as a given, and those who have struggled with it would probably see it as an evasive pipe dream.  Much like social privilege, it can often be difficult to detect without some catalyzing event.  Disparities in social privilege have been thrown into the limelight by a series of racial incidents over the course of the last several years, and accordingly, disparities in mental health privilege should be made more than evident by the suicides that have brought detriment to our community this year.

In writing these words and thinking these thoughts, I do not believe that a “call to action” here ends in throwing more money toward psychological services.  As much as I believe that funding of psychological services at this university should be increased, I would hesitate to claim that another few thousand dollars would have stopped Alyssa Weaver and potentially Dmitri Teplov from committing suicide.  Rather, I encourage everyone reading this article to think carefully about the state of those without the privilege of stable mental health.  We should seek to sympathize with members of our community instead of ignoring them for the sake of convenience.   If we have the tremendous power to come together in grievance of a lost classmate, then there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be able to show the same love and solidarity for that classmate before they give up on our community.

Almost all of us came to Northwestern with a spring in our step and a wealth of hopes and expectations about the next four years of our lives.  Somewhere along the way, some springing steps slowed to afflicted trudges, and some hopes and expectations dissolved into disappointment and misery.  As members of the same community – a community with so many shared characteristics – it is our responsibility to ensure that none of our own be left behind or discouraged.  If we can build a stronger community around support and sympathy, then perhaps someday students of this excellent institution won’t have to consider tragedy to be a recurrent manifestation of their experience here.

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14 Responses to “A Reflection on Death, Privilege, and The College Experience”

  1. brennansuen May 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    Reblogged this on Both Eyes on the Suen and commented:
    A Northwestern student, Dmitri Teplov, was found dead yesterday in his dorm room, the second suicide this year. This post from NU’s normally satirical webzine Sherman Ave. hits on some important issues about mental health and standing together as a community. To those suffering with mental health issues, you are not alone.

  2. Kristin April Kim May 6, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    The most recent death had hit me really hard because I was abroad with her, and you conveyed what I wanted to say in such a poignant and powerful manner. This was the closure I really needed but never had. Thank you so much, my friend.

  3. LRW May 6, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    The discussion about privilege was very apt, but…

    “If we have the tremendous power to come together in grievance of a lost classmate, then there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be able to show the same love and solidarity for that classmate before they give up on our community.”

    I don’t think it was fair or right or true to write that Dmitri Teplov’s suicide means he “gave up” on our community.

    • Mara May 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

      Agreed. The last sentence also struck me as insensitive. The takeaway should be that students shouldn’t feel isolated and distressed to the point of contemplating suicide, not that the immense suffering of others has cast a dark shadow on survivors’ university years.

      • LRW May 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

        Absolutely agreed!

  4. Coco May 6, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    I agree with the need to come together to “show the same love and solidarity” to members of our community who need or want support and communication from others, but what does that practically mean? I find myself asking–how can I, as one person, contribute to a positive dialogue that moves our community towards supporting each other in the face of hardship? How do I even “identify” someone who needs my help? Or how do I make myself open to facilitating healing in my peers?

    • Miri May 8, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      One simple thing you can do is to get trained in QPR, a suicide prevention protocol that CAPS offers trainings in. They’re still in the process of expanding it to make it available to everyone on campus, but look out for info about trainings. It’s very simple and helps you learn how to tell if someone might be considering suicide, what questions you should ask them, and how to help them get treatment.

      Thanks for caring. :)

    • Danielle H May 9, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

      I don’t go to Northwestern; my friend who goes to Northwestern shared this link with me. However, I don’t think your question and the answer to your question are school-specific.

      As a person with major depression and borderline personality disorder, I’d say the best step is to start talking about mental health issues openly. Or at least put an end to NOT talking about it. I know this sounds really vague and cliche but trust me, it’s something that I wish for every day. The biggest struggle that I face is that currently the society does not yet have an environment in which I feel safe and un-judged talking about my mental health. Many colleges have LGBTQ+ communities in which queer people (hopefully) feel safe sharing their gender-related issues without being judged. Many colleges have minority student groups (Asian, Black/African-American, Latino/a student society, etc) in which minority students (hopefully) feel safe discussing race-related issues. Yet such group, not to mention such general atmosphere, is virtually non-existent regarding mental health. I’m not saying that gender or race issues are perfectly resolved on campuses/in society (I’m a minority student myself); what I’m saying is that mental health has a FAR WAY to go.

      So just start talking about it. Start a discussion. Be conscious that this issue exists. It doesn’t have to be a big, school-wide event or anything. Just know that it is there and spread the word. You wouldn’t have to identify who needs your help if that someone feels safe reaching out for help! You may think a single person making the conversation wouldn’t help, but hey, that’s how everything changed, no? Besides, in my experience it’s really hard to find even one person who openly talks about this issue that just finding one person is so relieving.

      I’m not the greatest writer, so I don’t know if what I’m trying to say is conveyed well enough in this comment. I hope it is.

      • Coco May 9, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

        Thanks for yalls input into my questions! Miri, I would love to hear more about that. Danielle, I get the gist, it sounds like you’re pointing to the value of everyday kindnesses and the importance of individual dedication to this issue.

  5. Jon May 8, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    As someone who was very well acquainted with one of the three deceased, I ask that those of you who did not know the deceased stop acting like you are affected. It’s insulting to those who knew the victim when someone who would not have cared about or known your friend in life suddenly acts like his heart is torn.

    • Miri May 8, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

      I’m sorry for your loss.

      I don’t think anyone means to imply that they are as affected, or affected in the same way, as someone who was close with a person who passed away. However, when someone dies in such a preventable way, it’s understandable that members of that person’s community might be shocked and horrified, and wish they’d done something that might’ve prevented the person’s suicide. Ross isn’t claiming to be grieving for Dmitri or anything like that; rather, he’s talking about this tragedy as a way to discuss the privilege of mental health, which is a really important topic that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What Do We Do About It? | Sherman Ave - May 13, 2013

    […] the resurfacing of mental health discourse on campus at Northwestern, it’s about time we have a serious discussion about priorities. With […]

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