The protests that have embroiled university campuses across this country over the past week are as much about free speech rights as GamerGate was about ethics in gaming journalism.
This is to say that although we would probably find value and relevancy in a debate about political restrictions that might exist to limit free speech in classrooms of higher education, what we’re seeing take place right now at Yale, University of Missouri, Ithaca College, and Claremont McKenna has very little to do with it. The protests taking place at these and other colleges and universities have almost nothing to do with attacks on free speech.
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?
Regular readers of this blog will know that mental health, depression and suicide within the Asian American community is a topic I write frequently about. My interest in this issue originates from my activism at Cornell University, where a task force I helped urge the administration to put together ultimately found that 13 out of 21 on-campus suicides (or 61%) between 1996-2006 involved Asian American students. Consistent with trends observed in the population at-large, college-aged students are most at-risk for death by suicide within the Asian American community.
Cornell has a reputation as a school where the student suicide rate is unusually high, but it also has the reputation as a school where depression, anxiety and self-harm are a public health priority. Since the publication of that original report on Cornell’s Asian American suicide deaths, the administration put together the Asian & Asian American Center as one of several resources geared specifically to address our vulnerable community.
Sadly, at most elite universities, mental health resources languish and suicide rate is intolerably high. MIT is another school that has a reputation for a significant student suicide rate. In the 2014-2015 school year alone, six students have died by suicide, and a professor has also died from self-inflicted injuries.
The Yale student community was rocked last night with news that sophomore Luchang Wang, ’17 — mathematics major and member of Yale’s Silliman College — had died Tuesday of an apparent suicide. She was 20 years old.
Friends became concerned after Wang posted some worrisome messages to a public Facebook thread on Tuesday, prompting the rapid organization of a campus-wide search by students and friends. The search was coordinated online with friends posting places they had canvassed on Facebook — some ventured as far as East Rock, the park north of New Haven.
Students also contacted Silliman College and Yale Police to officially report Wang missing, launching a door-to-door search. They later reported to police the discovery that Wang had purchased airfare to San Francisco, California; the plane was scheduled to land Tuesday morning. Later that afternoon, police also discovered that the last time Wang had used her Yale ID to swipe into Silliman College was two days prior, and asked students to halt their frantic New Haven search under the presumption that she had boarded her flight and was no longer in the New Haven area.
By 6pm Tuesday, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway delivered the tragic news to the Yale student community by email that Wang’s body had been recovered in California.
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!