On October 19, students, faculty and staff at the University of Vermont received a short email from Thomas Gustafson, vice president for student and campus life, informing them of the death of Alexander Chernik, a first-year student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The communiqué said that Chernik “unexpectedly and tragically passed away in his Chittenden residence hall room,” but emphasized that there was “no indication at this time that bullying, bias or foul play contributed to his death.”
The four-paragraph announcement also extended condolences to Chernik’s family and friends, indicated the time and location of his memorial service, and noted the phone numbers of the student counseling center and employee assistance program for anyone on campus who was “in need of additional support.”
No less vague was the lead story in the following week’s Vermont Cynic. UVM’s student-run newspaper didn’t explicitly say that Chernik committed suicide — only that police were treating the incident as “an untimely death.” Nor did the article mention the S-word in connection with another UVM student, Frank Christopher Evans, 24, who took his life just two weeks earlier in South Burlington.
Such thinly veiling euphemisms and deferential avoidance of obvious realities may be comforting to the immediate family and friends of the deceased students. So, too, are the administration’s assurances that neither death is similar to the 16 other campus suicides that have occurred nationally in recent weeks that resulted from bullying and harassment.
Yet the reluctance of UVM to acknowledge publicly what most students already know or suspect has done little to silence the campus rumor mill. Some student leaders and mental health professionals claim it’s misguided to sweep the problem of suicide under the rug.
Officially, UVM administrators have little else to say about either death. (Evans wasn’t registered as a student this semester and didn’t live on campus.) University policy is to respect the wishes of the next of kin, according to Annie Stevens, associate vice president for student and campus life.
“We are very open to discussing the issue of suicide and mental health in general,” she writes in an email response to a press query, “but we are not going to invade privacy of a grieving family.”
Through he can’t comment on what might be motivating UVM’s decision making, Dr. Alan Berman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Suicidology, notes it’s not uncommon for colleges and universities to accede to the wishes of family members.
“Sometimes it’s the university’s false belief that this is better than being open about it,” he says. “Sometimes it has to do with the university’s fear of litigation, and if they call it what it looks like, that increases the chances that there will be a lawsuit.”
Some at UVM believe a little official candor would go a long way toward addressing the issue of campus suicide, which claims the lives of about 1100 college students annually. It is now the third most common cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though incidents such as these are tragic, painful and difficult to discuss, shouldn’t they also be seen as teachable moments by public institutions dedicated to educating young people in life skills?
That’s the view of Amy Goodnough, a UVM junior and copresident of Active Minds at UVM, a student-run chapter of a national organization dedicated to raising public awareness about mental-health issues. Goodnough says that, while she understands the administration’s sensitivity to the cultural stigma attached to suicide, she believes there are other factors worth considering.
“We are all survivors of suicide. It’s not just the family, but our whole university community that’s been affected,” she says. “It’s hard when people want to process it and talk about it, and at the same time it’s being hushed up because the administration has not come forward and said, ‘Alex took his own life.’”
Goodnough may be on to something. “There’s definitely a tension and a low mood on campus,” observes Dot Brauer, who has worked at UVM since 1992. “There’s more gravity to it than even the typical exam period. I’m not imagining it.”
Brauer, who is director of the LGBTQA Center at UVM, says there’s no indication either of the two young male suicides was connected to the LGBTQ community.
If bullying or harassment had contributed to either death, she speculates, the families might have been more likely to come forward and share their grief. That’s what transpired in several recent cases that have gotten national attention.
“In each of those places, public acknowledgement has allowed the community to really pour out, to come out of their houses and schools and cry and grieve together, and talk about the problem openly,” Brauer says. “It’s much harder to do that when a community is not free to publicly acknowledge something.”