Walking Beside Each Otherby Christina Egbert • September 8, 2017 Share:
Grieving the deaths of two students in four weeks galvanized a group of Wabash students, faculty, and staff to change the culture of how we think about, talk about, and treat mental health issues on campus.
It was Friday, September 9, 2016. Delon pettiford ’17, CJ McMann ’17, and LV Bowden ’17 were leaving to spend the weekend at different college campuses after a few hours of joking around and playing video games with their fourth roommate, Austin Weirich ’18, at their Wabash townhouse.
Before they left, the three seniors looked at their junior roommate and told him to have fun and to be safe.
“You too,”Austin said.
The guys told Austin they’d see him in a little bit.
That was the last conversation Delon, CJ, and LV had with him.
“It wasn’t until the early morning hours on Saturday that things seemed weird,” Delon recalls. “I had, like, three missed calls from CJ, which was weird because he never called me. But then I got a text from him that something had happened to ‘Weir.’”
Several possible explanations flashed through his mind, but when all three men were contacted by Dean of Students Mike Raters ’85 requesting
a conference call the next morning, he knew it was much more serious.
Early on September 10, Delon, CJ, and LV were told that Austin had died in the middle of the night, and authorities were investigating it as death by suicide.
“I remember LV asking, ‘Is this a joke?’” Delon says. “Obviously a dean wouldn’t joke about that, but, at the time, it was just really, really shocking.”
Dean Raters announced Austin’s death to the rest of the campus: “Wabash is a tight-knit community and this tragedy hurts to the core. All of us should seek the help and support of one another at this difficult time. Additional support services will be available via the Wabash Counseling Center, local clergy, and our office. Let’s take care of each other as we grieve.”
“People were telling us, ‘You couldn’t have prevented it,’” Delon says. “But if we would have stayed, what would have happened?”
When the three roommates returned to campus they were temporarily moved to Martindale Hall. They didn’t go to class; nothing felt real. Like so many on campus, they were asking themselves and each other the same question: What didn’t we see?
“He was probably the most generous person I’d ever known,” Delon says. “I lived here during the summer, and he would drive up just to hang out because I was bored. He was our designated driver when we would go to the Cactus all the time. He didn’t let us pay him gas money. He’d cook and make meals for us. He was always smiling.
“So what happened just seems unbelievable, because he was such a happy person.”
For Delon, moving back into the townhome was the first step back to life being as normal as possible.
“It was kind of weird being in the area where it happened, but subconsciously, I don’t think
we thought that he was actually dead,” Delon recalls. “It felt like he was still alive and just wasn’t there at that moment. We took for granted coming home and seeing him every day after practice. That he’d be there making food or playing video games. It was weird coming home to an empty house.”
“Everyone was just in shock,” Bilal Jawed ’17 says. “We didn’t know how this happened. We were all pretty rattled.”
The former president of the campus’s Public Health Organization, Bilal had been classmates with Austin in Intro to Acting, a course taught
by Professor Jessie Mills that encouraged students to break down walls and get to know each other better.
“For me it’s scary from a public health standpoint, because Austin did seem happy,” Bilal says. “In every interaction I had with him, there were no warning signs. What could we have done? I always go back to that. Our class really took a hit after he was gone; we definitely missed him.”
It was an all-too familiar feeling for the Wabash College community, still grieving the death of Luke Borinstein ’19, who had died with his mother and sister in a small-aircraft accident just four weeks earlier after returning from the College’s Global Health Initiative (GHI) trip to Peru.
In a tragic irony, Luke’s memorial service, planned weeks in advance, took place four days after Austin’s death.
“Our hearts are full and weary, especially after the heartbreaking announcement Saturday of Austin Weirich’s passing,” biology Professor Anne Bost told the community packed into the Chapel.
“Give support where you are able, and ask for it when you need it. We are meant to love one another, so don’t try to go it alone. As a friend of mine wisely advocated, practice walking beside each other, not just physically, but intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.”
That wise friend and advocate was biology professor and GHI director Eric Wetzel, who, with Bost, had led that trip to Peru with Luke and his classmates.
“We had just gotten back from Peru—the accident happened the very next day,” Eric recalls. “The first day of class, there was just an empty chair. And everybody always sits in the same seat they’ve always sat in…so it was just a very conspicuous absence.”
Words Left Unsaid
“We all love each other, but you would never say that. I never once told Austin I cared about him in that way.”
Delon, Bilal, and Eric are talking about the stereotype that men don’t share their feelings—maybe on occasion with women, but rarely with each other.
Sometimes there’s truth in that stereotype.
“It’s a shame that it is that way,” Delon says, “but it is. I didn’t give Austin a hug when I came home or before I went to class. We didn’t sit down and talk about girl problems or really talk about issues we were having. My roommates and I would
sit, have a beer, and talk about sports or practice. Sometimes we would get into talking about emotions—especially after Austin died. That was the most open my roommates and I ever were about our emotions and how we were doing. But even then, there was a sense of needing to get back to normalcy as soon as possible and needing to be tough and learn how to fight through it.”
If it’s already difficult for some men to share what’s really going on, then are the challenges of destigmatizing conversations about mental health even greater at a college for men?
“I think it’s a little bit of a stereotype to say that it’s harder for us to break down walls because we’re all male,” Bilal says. “I don’t find that to be true. It definitely plays a part because you’re trying to be a man and Wabash uses language like
‘Wabash Always Fights.’ You can’t fight mental health like that. But I think the community and the closeness sort of overcomes that. Because of the brotherhood, we don’t have to feel like we’re macho men all the time.”
“I agree with some of that, but I also disagree,” Delon says. “When I first got here, I thought I was a pretty tough person, but I called my mom every day the first week saying that I absolutely hated it—it was hard and it was uncomfortable. But when I was with my friends or at football practice, I’m not going to be like, ‘I’m sad. I don’t like this.’ Especially coming in as a freshman, I wanted to establish myself on the team. I’m tough and I’m going to make it through no matter what. I have the grit and that’s who a Wabash man is.”
“I think the tendency, the default, is to be more toward what Delon is describing,” Eric says. “But Wabash is like this incubator for guys to be much more open with one another than they would be on a co-ed campus. I’ve seen this time and time again on immersion trips. I remember we were on a bus with about 32 guys who were really good friends, and one of them walked up behind another and just kind of bear-hugged him. Guys will be on the floors of airports sleeping, and one guy will have his arm around another.”
“When we’d go on football trips, I would literally fall asleep on LV’s shoulder and not think one thing about it,” Delon says. “And if somebody is really pissed at somebody else, you know, we’d force them to hug each other. But then I think that goes back to the groups that are built on campus. You need to be that way and open with everybody, not just your circle of friends.”
When it comes to normalizing the way we talk about mental health on the Wabash campus, Dean Mike Raters says the conversations that matter most are those between students.
That’s one reason he’s proud of the way Bilal, Eric, and the group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni worked together to create the new Mental Health Concerns Committee.
“You don’t have enough ink to print the names of all the people involved in this,” Raters says of those who spoke and listened at the monthly meetings that led to the committee’s creation. “There were student leaders, yes, but also those who are less connected, and we needed their perspective. We needed to hear the voices of everyone in that room. We know the conversations that matter most are those that occur when students are walking across the mall or talking in their living units—when they are getting into the depths of their personal challenges. And students know how to reach one another even better than we do.”
He praises Bilal for his leadership and Eric for his guidance, calling it an example of the “student-centric way we do things at Wabash.”
“Bilal was easy to work with—demanding when he needed to be, but gentlemanly with those nudges. And the relationship he and Eric have models the close-knit ties between students and faculty here.
“At Wabash, students lead the charge. I could have taken it, Eric could have taken it, or the counselors could have taken it and run with it. But in Bilal we had this talented, passionate young man who could push the right buttons and lead us, with guidance and support, to what is a very thoughtful structure. Continuity is so important. Bilal and his peers at those meetings ensured that Wabash will not forget Austin nor Luke—that their stories will get told here.”
For his part, the Dean will continue to make clear what he believes “Wabash Always Fights” truly means.
“It’s a mantra on the playing field, a mantra in the classroom, and for freshmen it’s a mantra to stay with us when you’re homesick, let us help you fight through that. But ‘Wabash Always Fights’ is also about finding the people to help you with whatever you’re fighting through.
“Men can be afraid to ask for the help they need, and when we say ‘Wabash Always Fights,’ it can be misinterpreted as machismo, going it alone. But it’s really about overcoming that fear, asking for help, realizing it’s not just about the individual and what he is going to ‘fight’ through, but what are all the resources here—how can I help my brothers, how can they help me?
"No one wins this game alone."
Things couldn’t go on as if nothing had happened. Eric’s students had already been designing a public health campaign for the campus. There had to be a way to help their fellow Wabash men process everything they’d just experienced in a healthy way. There had to be a way to help those students who need help and don’t know where to turn.
They decided to focus their campaign around mental health.
“You had guys who had talked to Austin just a couple hours before
his death, and we’re having this conversation just weeks after Luke died,” Eric says. Almost a year after the deaths, he still tears up. “I think at first there was just a lot of confusion. As we started talking about it as a class, we started to peel back the onion. But then I realized that we needed to step back from the assignment. ‘Let’s talk about this,’ I said. ‘Let’s talk about the health of the people in this group.’”
Bilal remembers turning to Eric for comfort that semester.
“I hadn’t digested Luke’s death until the day of his memorial,” he says. “I had at least three people in one day ask me if I was okay, and I told them I was. And when I finally got to Dr. Wetzel, I was like, ‘No. I’m not.’ He brought me into his office, and that made all the difference.”
“The reality is, I don’t think we ever finished the assignment,” Eric says of the class’ plans for a public health campaign. But his students would become the catalyst for what may be the long-term solution.
“Something had to be done, but there was no formal mechanism to do anything,” Eric says. “I said to the deans, ‘Look I’m not trying to take over. I know there’s going to be a Chapel. But from my standpoint, it’s the long term that matters. How is it going to be sustainable? I mean, you can do a Chapel service—that’s important. But if you don’t institutionalize something, it’s going to be a flash in the pan.”
It is June 27, 2017.
Delon, Bilal, and Eric have returned to campus to reflect on the events of the past year.
With Eric’s persistence, Bilal’s leadership, and the work of many others, much was accomplished last spring. The campus now has a fully functioning Mental Health Concerns Committee, that will meet monthly with the goal of normalizing the conversation about and treatment of mental health.
“I was concerned about the resistance I would face, but instead I found resounding support,” Bilal says. “This includes everyone from Dean Mike Raters, to faculty, to individual students, to alumni, all reaching out to me, asking how they could help.”
Bilal, Eric, and their collaborators designed the committee to last. They wanted every Wabash student to feel as though he had a voice. For that reason, the committee is made up of representatives from several different groups on campus, including the Student Senate, the Independent Men’s Association, the Inter-Fraternity Council, the counseling center, the Dean’s Office, and non-affiliated student positions.
“I think that’s the genius of the structure of the Mental Health Concerns Committee,” Eric says. “It’s not people; it’s positions.”
That composition makes it less likely that the work of the committee will fall through the cracks just because one or two of its leaders graduate, meaning that future students have less of a chance of falling through the cracks, too.
“If this committee does its job right, people won’t have to reach out for mental health resources,” Bilal says. “When the time comes that someone needs help—and it will—we want the resources to be right in front of their faces.”
Delon wonders aloud if that had been the case in September, if a number to call had been right there on their refrigerator, would Austin have reached out for help?
“I went to the counselors a couple times, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” He smiles. “I know they are there for me when I need them.
“Maybe this is about making people aware that they can
get help and they shouldn’t be ashamed to get it.”
“I want to see a community and a culture where going to the counseling center is treated the same exact way as going to the trainer after practice or going to the doctor,” Bilal says. “I would like the counseling center to be moved to the health center to emphasize that this has nothing to do with your manhood—that people will understand that it’s just like having a cold or the flu, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking help.”
Bilal says he’s already seen some changes.
“After the passing of Austin and Luke, I felt like the atmosphere on campus shifted and there was a lot more openness. I saw people saying, ‘Are you okay?’ I saw people encouraging others to reach out.
“The ability to mobilize is very strong here, but the solution has to be not just an institutional change, but a cultural shift in how we treat, think about, and deal with mental illnesses. It has to come from within, and for freshmen coming in, this will be the new normal.”
Delon worries that, for returning students, last year will be out of sight and out of mind, while incoming freshmen will hardly have a clue as to what happened on their new campus just months earlier.
“It’s a sad reality that people care in the moment but then, at some point, life has to go on and people go back to their normal lives,” he says. “Raising awareness is one thing, but keeping it going is really, really tough to do. Especially here at Wabash. We are united because we’re small, but we’re also divided in so many ways. You can make sure the people around you are okay, but there has to be something done to unite everyone.”
Nothing unites the Wabash brotherhood more than the traditions that surround it.
“As soon as you come in as a freshman,” Delon says, “you have the Gentleman’s Rule. You have all these traditions about what to do and what not to do, like, ‘Don’t walk under the arch.’ You’re expected to excel in sports. We have to beat DePauw.
“I think there has to be something about mental health and campus unity. Wabash needs something that reminds the campus that ‘we’re here for you. You guys are here for each other.’ And like all the other traditions, it’s going to be up to each class to pass that down.”
“That speaks to the potential this campus has,” Eric says. “The almost comical thing about Wabash and its traditions is it only takes a couple of times of doing something for it to become a tradition.”
“And just like that,” Bilal adds, “you can build a culture of asking, ‘Are you okay?’ And that’s going to go a long way.”