In a message circulated late yesterday to members of the Yale University community, Yale University dean of students Jonathan Holloway broke the tragic news that Yale student Rae Na Lee, ’19, had died in her home in New Haven, Connecticut. Lee was the second Yale student to die in the last week. This past Monday, the Yale community learned that Hale Ross, ’18, had died of apparent suicide over the weekend.
Raheel Siddiqui was just 20 years old when he first arrived at Parris Island, where the young Marine recruit faced his first days of training. The young Pakistani American Muslim had been recruited by the Marines while he was a student at the University of Michigan, where he had studied robotics and engineering and dreamed of one day working for the FBI.
On March 18, 2016, only eleven days into his training, Raheel Siddiqui was dead from injuries sustained following a 40 foot fall off of an outside stairwell balcony. Siddiqui’s death was ruled a suicide after a witness said that Siddiqui had became faint and then had thrown himself from the outdoor balcony ledge.
But, Siddiqui’s death has since sparked a major inquiry into a culture of hazing at Parris Island where ethnic and homophobic slurs are the norm and that likely contributed to Siddiqui’s death. An investigation has revealed that only one day after arriving at Parris Island, Siddiqui threatened to commit suicide. When evaluated by mental health professionals, Siddiqui reported that he felt his drill instructor was abusive. However, he withdrew his threat of suicide and was returned to training. Roughly a week later, Siddiqui complained of feeling ill and asked to be allowed to see a doctor. Instead, his drill instructor punished him with grueling on-the-spot physical training. When Siddiqui collapsed from fatigue saying that his throat hurt, his instructor slapped him several times (which is against Marine regulations) immediately before Siddiqui leapt to his death.
Siddiqui’s story is not the first to raise questions about the (mis)treatment of soldiers and cadets of colour in the US military.
Nearly a year after 13-year-old Emilie Olsen was found dead of an apparent suicide, her parents have filed a federal lawsuit against the Fairfield County school district in Ohio alleging that the school didn’t do enough to stop the bullying that led to Emilie’s death.
Emilie, who was adopted at the age of 9 months from China, grew up in Ohio where she faced bullying to severe that she suffered chronic depression and anxiety. The bullying included name-calling, physical abuse, and at least one incident where a girl reportedly followed Emilie into a bathroom with a razor and told her to kill herself. In addition, school bullies engaged in cyber-bullying; they created a social media account that subjected Emilie to slut-shaming and homophobic slurs.
When we were freshmen first entering Cornell, an older student told Snoopy in a dubious effort to introduce us to the realities of campus life, “expect that not everyone in your class is going to make it with you to graduation day.” By this, he meant to prepare us for the eventuality that someone we knew would die by suicide in the four years we would be students at Cornell.
To this day, my friend’s advice still strikes me as disturbing. It bothers me not necessarily because it was untrue — indeed, Cornell has a reputation (perhaps unfairly earned) of an abnormally high on-campus suicide rate, and his words did end up being prophetic for me — but because of the cavalier manner by which they were spoken. This senior student (whom I still count as a friend, by the way) issued this warning almost dismissively; as if he had become jaded on the topic of suicide; as if he believed some baseline rate of suicide deaths should be expected; as if he thought the on-campus suicide rate statistic should just be overlooked; as if he felt that losing a classmate by suicide should be unremarkable.
The loss of a person’s life should never be treated as unremarkable. Yet, too often, that is exactly the kind of treatment that Asian American student victims (as well as other student of colour victims) of suicide face in the mainstream coverage of the larger issue of on-campus suicide. Too often, the intersection of racial identity with on-campus mental health is overlooked, and so the many Asian American student victims (and other student of colour victims) of suicide are rendered invisible.
This post was written with input and inspiration from Snoopy.
Yesterday, the New York Times profiled Kathryn DeWitt, a young University of Pennsylvania student whose battle with depression and her survival of a suicide attempt motivated DeWitt to become an on-campus mental health advocate. I do not write this post in an attempt to belittle DeWitt’s depression, or her mental health advocacy. Indeed, stories like DeWitt’s are necessary and inspirational, and telling them helps to pull back the veil of stigma and shame that still shrouds the topic of mental illness, depression, anxiety and suicide in university settings, or in the community at-large.
I applaud the New York Times for dedicating ample space to the topic of on-campus suicide by profiling Kathryn DeWitt, and in so doing helping to normalize mental health conversations.
But, in an article that comprehensively touched on so many topics relevant to student mental health — academic pressures, obsessive perfectionism, helicopter parenting, inadequate mental health resources, and elite universities’ damning readmission policies — how did the New York Times manage to so completely marginalize the Asian American community from the conversation?