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At Penn vigil, grappling with athlete's suicide
Owen Thomas was a trusted friend, a generous teammate, and a loving son and brother who finished his junior year at college as a tragic statistic. The 21-year-old scholar athlete with a wide-open future took his life last Monday afternoon, shocking his family and an extensive community at the University of Pennsylvania.
During a candlelight vigil Thursday night attended by more than 200, Thomas was remembered for his complex personality.
“You know in football . . . we want our guys to play with great tenacity,” defensive coach Jim Schaefer said. “We tell them we want them to play with their hair on fire. Well, if you didn’t look real closely and Owen went running by, you’d swear with that red flowing hair that his hair was actually on fire.”
Although Thomas was a fierce competitor on the field, he showed disarming concern for the well-being of others.
“He let other people shine,” said Jennifer Mueller, a professor of management at Penn’s Wharton School. “Owen didn’t seem to see his own successes as important; rather, he seemed to feel the tremendous pressure to promote the success of the group.”
Although friends, family, and his coaches knew Thomas had been anxious recently and disappointed in himself for not maintaining top grades, he did not seem to have told anyone he was contemplating suicide.
“Maybe humble leaders experience tremendous pressure not to let the group down, and we have to remind them that being flawed is human,” Mueller said. “There are moments when I berate myself for . . . not giving Owen more encouragement and help. But my intuition is that no one person could have helped Owen alone. Rather, we as a community can take responsibility.”
Thomas’ death, along with a recent spate of suicides at Cornell University, which has lost six students this academic year, has raised questions about the pressure to perform in the Ivy League.
But the research into suicide, although limited, indicates that college students, including those at elite schools, are at no greater risk of suicide than anyone else in the same age group.
“It’s not that pressures or stresses don’t contribute to suicide,” said Ann Haas of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “But the single clearest underlying factor is unrecognized and untreated mental disorders.”
In the United States and elsewhere, she said, “there are hundreds of thousands of students whose pressures are even more intense and who go through these experiences without any self-harm behavior.”
Being in college may actually be “protective,” said Gregory Brown, associate professor of psychiatry at Penn. Research shows a considerably lower risk of suicide among college students than in the general population between ages 18 and 25. A 1997 study of Big Ten university students found a suicide rate of 7.4 per 100,000, about half the rate of their peers.
“If it were true that the environment is the problem, then every student in that same environment would be at risk,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology and president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
Ivy League schools may be stressful, he said, but the overwhelming majority of students “are going to be functioning reasonably well.”
Statistics, of course, provide little solace to the grieving.
“It’s finals time, but everything just feels so insignificant,” said Rachel Marchand, one of Thomas’ friends. “It really does put your life in perspective. Tests don’t matter. Saying ‘I love you’ or calling an old friend does.”
Penn’s mental-health service has met with the football team and offered help to anyone struggling with grief or guilt.
Across the campus, students and professors are asking themselves whether they should have or could have done more to help.
“There is a lot of second-guessing,” said William Alexander, director of CAPS, the school’s counseling and psychological service. “People try and look back and wonder what they missed. . . . ‘He seemed like such a happy guy. We had no clue.’ . . . But how can you explain something that’s absolutely inexplicable?”
This kind of regret is understandable, Alexander said, but ultimately unreasonable. “In hindsight, all kinds of things become obvious. But you can’t piece something together retrospectively” that you couldn’t have expected to see.
As one of Thomas’ teammates, Kyle Derham, said, “I used to wish I could wake up every single morning feeling like Owen Thomas. I wish I could wake up with a smile on my face and be happy to go to a morning run at 6.” To Derham, his friend seemed “like he’s having a great time all the time, and he brightens everyone’s day.”
Depression does not always reveal itself according to prescribed rules.
“We can educate ourselves and each other about symptoms, to recognize signs,” Alexander said. “We can teach faculty and students to notice changes in behavior, when someone loses weight or stops coming to class,” he said. “But some students still take you by surprise.”
Nationally, college campuses are trying to do a better job of reaching students who may be at risk. Penn recently started a peer-to-peer network called the Healthy Living Task Force. So far, only 20 students have volunteered for the training to help them learn how to identify and help themselves and others who might be slipping into hopelessness.
“The whole point is to try to prevent this type of thing, to have people’s friends be on the alert,” said Rabbi Ephraim Levin, who advises the task force. “In a lot of cases, it’s just not possible.”
Part of the problem is the lingering stigma associated with mental illness. Though college mental-health services nationally report record numbers of students seeking help, more often than not they find that those who kill themselves have not sought treatment.
At the vigil, students read poems, shared memories of Thomas’ intellect and his mastery of the Chris Farley oeuvre. They listened, weeping, to a full eight-minute rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” by Thomas’ beloved Led Zeppelin.
The tears were contagious, even among the tough football players. Several teammates tried to stifle their emotions and were comforted with a pat on the shoulder or arm around the back. But one by one they gave in, until, at the end of the ceremony, many were weeping openly.
The ceremony, held during a week of study before exams, took place outside the Van Pelt Library. Clutching books on their way into the stacks, students stopped uncomfortably, uncertain whether to join the mourners, stand still in respect, or go about their business.
“This is our chance to make ourselves better people,” said Jackie Haas, one of Thomas’ close friends. “Let us use Owen as an example of how we should all live our lives, and let us lean on each other. May no one ever suffer in silence again.”
Joe Goniprow, one of Thomas’ teammates, raised a lighted cigar in his memory.
A slight wind threatened to snuff out the candles, but most still burned until they melted into mangled lumps of wax. At the end of the ceremony, Al Bagnoli, the football coach, made the rounds with just about every player.
The crowd dispersed, some heading home, others to get beer, and one group of teammates to build a bonfire and talk for hours about their friend and life and how to cope with their loss.
One of the last to leave was Keiffer Garton, the star quarterback and newly elected captain. He could be seen walking slowly and alone down Locust Walk, his white Penn football hat pulled low over his face.
Suicide Prevention Sites
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
For an educational video, visit www.morethansad.org
The Jed Foundation: 212-647-7544 or www.jedfoundation.org
At Penn vigil, grappling with athlete’s suicide
By Matt Flegenheimer, Joe Juliano, and Melissa Dribben, The Philadelphia Inquirer