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Op-Ed: To Stanford, re: suicide


Editor’s note: The following piece contains references to suicide that may be troubling for some readers.

As Stanford graduates cross the stage in recognition of their achievements, the student body remembers the fellow students who could not be there to join them.

Here today in memory are Kelly Catlin, a Stanford ICME student who died of suicide in her Stanford residence in March, a fifth-year engineering Ph.D. student at Stanford who died of suicide in February (at the family’s request, the name is omitted), as well as colleagues from other universities, such as Dan Nguyen, a Ph.D. student at MIT who died from suicide in 2009.

To friends and family of the new graduates: As you watch each student walk across the stage, ask yourself how many of them are that different from the departed students. They probably listened to the same music, laughed at the same jokes, and although they may not have known it, they had likely been to the same graduate student organization parties and drank beer from the very same keg.

To graduating students: Imagine a world where your colleagues would be here sitting next to you, just as excited in their cap and gown, and with their mothers and fathers snapping away at their cameras. Ask yourself what is required to change the world we have now into one where they would have survived. What would be the necessary steps? What would be the resistance to that change?

I’d like to share a few thoughts about this topic today.

The father of Kelly Catlin is a pathologist, a medical doctor with a primary expertise in diagnosing difficult cases. Being an Olympic athlete, Kelly had an abundance of physical and psychological examinations following her physical injuries, and after Kelly died, her father reviewed these data in detail. He concluded that her physical injuries were not enough to account for her death, and remarked that the University did not do its part to help her.

“I am sorry, but they could have done more for Kelly, enough to save her life.”

Not just a grieving parent, he wrote with the authority of a physician, and yet also with humility as he apologized for his words. He gently tells us that the University failed to save his daughter’s life when made aware of the urgency of the matter following a previous suicide attempt in January and a week’s stay at the University hospital, and when it was well within their means to do so.

So why didn’t Stanford intervene when it was urgent and within their means? The simple reason is that they view moral issues and legal duties as distinct. Imagine a scenario where a bystander witnesses someone drowning in a nearby pond. Although there is a moral “duty to rescue” the victim, in most English speaking countries, the bystander is not legally liable for walking away, even if the victim is begging for help. Here, Stanford walked away from Kelly.

The legal analysis of the “duty to rescue” is complex. Broadly speaking, to the extent that there exists a “special relationship” between the parties, the moral “duty to rescue” transitions to obligation, and apathy transitions to legal negligence, which in some cases is criminal. Important factors include whether or not the obligated individual has any “training,” whether or not his action would be considered an “easy rescue,” and the age and condition of the victim.

A recent example is the case of deputy Scot Peterson, who ran away from a school shooting while 17 of the people he was hired to protect died. Because he had a special relationship, training, and children were involved, he is being charged with seven counts of neglect of a child and three counts of culpable negligence. But due to the blurriness of the law, it’s unclear whether or not he will be convicted. Today an article in the Washington Post examines the same question we are asking ourselves, “Is cowardice a crime?”

In 2009, a doctoral student at MIT named Dan Nguyen died from suicide after receiving a harsh email from his advisor, who allegedly was unaware of Dan’s struggles with mental health. The family sued MIT for failing to do its part, and as expected, the university’s attorneys dragged the lawsuit out for nearly a decade. Last year, the court ruled that MIT doesn’t have a responsibility to protect students like Dan, and wrote in their brief [SJC-12329]:

“[U]niversities, their faculty, and their non-clinical employees have no legal duty to prevent students from committing suicide.”

There you have it. Despite what the university will say about caring for student mental health, they actually rely on this disturbing legal interpretation. But this can’t be right. Universities are clearly not bystanders or strangers in regards to their students’ wellbeing, they have a clear moral obligation towards it. But to defend itself, the university will rely on three ideas: the availability of resources, the ill-posed concept of a “special relationship,” and the unreasonable expectation of “training” its staff.

MIT argues that Dan didn’t accept help from the university despite the availability of resources. They claim there was “no evidence that the decedent ‘relied, to his detriment, on the services gratuitously offered by [university] personnel.’” In other words, they blame Dan for not accepting help that was “gratuitously” offered to him, although they are well-aware that he was receiving care off-campus.

But in Kelly’s case, the exact opposite is true. Stanford actively refused to provide the exact care she needed, well aware that no other equivalent care was available off-campus. Stanford told Kelly’s father, a physician, that Kelly was not “technically,” under some esoteric statute, considered a “varsity” athlete and was therefore ineligible to see the world-class sports psychologist at Stanford, who was the only accessible resource who could have helped her out of her plunge. Telling a silver-medal Olympian who nearly died of suicide that they can’t see the only doctor around who can save her life because she’s not “varsity” is like telling a diabetic Nobel laureate that they will have to starve to death because they are technically not “faculty” and therefore can’t eat in the lounge while no other food is available.

While it’s common knowledge that the relationship between a doctoral student and advisor is extraordinarily important, Stanford University and MIT would like you to believe, and would like the courts to believe, that an advisor has no “special relationship” with the students, who are often legal adults, and therefore have no general duty to prevent suicide. They will claim that previous court cases “do not establish a ‘special relationship’ encompassing a general duty to prevent adult university students from committing suicide.”

They would also like you to believe that the administration and faculty have no “special training,” and that any rescue would not be “easy.” To back this up, they will say the following:

“To hold that a teacher who has had no training, education, or experience in medical fields is required to recognize in a student a condition, the diagnosis of which is in a specialized and technical medical field, would require a duty beyond reason.”

Under this interpretation, there is a “perverse incentive” for the University to deliberately ensure that administrators and faculty have no “special training,” and therefore no duty to rescue. And so begins a vicious cycle of negligence justified by an actual ignorance, which in turn leads to more negligence. But what if the student, or a person close to the student, tells an administrator about a present risk of suicide? Obviously, no special training is required to “recognize” that condition, which suggests that claiming ignorance is not the best strategy forward.

Look at the big picture. There is a two-way relationship between who we are as a society and what our laws are. Our beliefs, values, and expectations of one another are what motivate laws. And in turn, the law shapes who we are as a society. Stanford and MIT’s interpretation of the law speaks against being educated on a topic that could save someone’s life, for the very reason that if that person were well trained, then they could be seen as liable for not intervening. This flawed interpretation shapes society into one that does not reflect our common values, and in not promoting education among members of the educational elite, it also contradicts our common sense.

For the doctoral students reading this, are you aware of any advisor who have ever received formal, and prolonged training on leadership? The simple answer is “no.” Although advisors are employed to lead students, they rarely, if ever, receive formal and prolonged training on leadership. To compensate, the administration actively trains them to follow the book when it comes to students in distress, allowing them to avoid liability when things inevitably go wrong.

Beyond “failing to intervene,” the University is also taking actions that directly oppose its moral obligation. Using the example of Scot Peterson, this deeper problem is akin to a situation where the deputy turns out to be the actual shooter of the students. In the example of the pond, the bystander is actually drowning the victim. And with Stanford, instead of improving the mental strength of its students, it seems to be outright handicapping them.

This deeper problem is so common that there’s actually an ongoing class action lawsuit filed by six Stanford students who claim that the University doesn’t just shirk its responsibility of wellbeing, it actively discriminates against students who report mental health issues by banning them from returning to campus until they sign a letter that indemnifies the University, if they even allow the student to return. The plaintiffs rightfully claim that this harsh policy both humiliates and threatens the student, driving their mental health even lower.

In a blog post, Kelly Caitlin wrote that the ICME made her retake a final exam, which may strike some students as odd since, although rescheduling is common, being required to retake any exam is extremely rare. Kelly wrote that the stress was so great, she felt like she was “juggling knives.” Even if the department tries to show that it wasn’t acting against her, what does this situation tell of the compassion shown by the leadership of the ICME and the University?

With well-funded legal protections in place to protect its current strategy, the University is unlikely to change. However, the public relations arm of the institution will be more than happy to make you think it will. They are likely to lead a moment of silence for the victims and ask the Provost and President to write a heartfelt blog post about how they are so “deeply committed” to change. Similar to the “thoughts and prayers” of our congressmen, these commitments are a façade, and the educated members of the public should not mistake their apparent humanity for polished and coldly-calculated apathy. After all, in the face of previous suicides, their “deep commitment” to change resulted in graduate students receiving free sugar water. An article from the Stanford Daily quotes a student protestor:

“A number of years ago, there was a wave of graduate student suicides,” she told the crowd. “The University’s response was to create a program where students who live off campus could get boba or hamburgers together. We don’t need more boba. We need humane policies that treat [students with mental health issues] with respect.”

We can not and should not expect the University to respond any differently to the recent loss of our colleagues. Since I’m writing this open letter anonymously, and therefore free to speak out about this without fear of retaliation against my role here at Stanford, I’m going to outline a few suggestions for creating change efficiently.

The first of these suggestions it to communicate clearly. State how Stanford is violating our common values. Here is an example: Common sense and decency dictate that if you are a University official, and you learn that a student has fallen into mental distress, you need to set your chalk down and go help them until they are safely pulled away from danger. That is your job, and if you don’t realize this, then you shouldn’t be leading students.

The second is to tell someone who could do better. In this case, the person with the closest obligation to Kelly is the department chair, Gianluca Iaccarino. For parents reading this, even if it’s uncomfortable, it would be nice if you stood up for Kelly’s parents. In the kindest way possible, write or speak with Gianluca. Don’t vilify him or be abusive, just be constructive. Tell him that after this experience, you hope that he will realize how important it is to be compassionate and actively help students with mental health crises. Suggest that it’s easier to be unintentionally negligent when you’re not around, and that he ought to move his primary office, which is located across campus, into the ICME so he can be closer to the students in his department. Reach out to the Stanford athletic director, Bernard Muir, and ask if he would change his views on letting Kelly have access to that sports psychologist. Finally, write to Susie Brubaker-Cole, Harry Elam, and Patricia Gumport, who manage mental health at Stanford and ask them to be concrete about what liability the University will accept and which policies they are actually going to implement. But whatever you do, don’t be silent and enable these administrators to hide from duty.

The third is to understand what actually drives change. As many of you know, people rarely do what they ought to unless there is some compelling force in place to motivate them. Just as congressmen are driven by donations instead of moral convictions, Stanford cares more about its name and donors than anything else. You can perturb either of these, and they will institute a change in policy faster than you can say “class action.” Wealthy donors understand the power of capital to compel individuals to performing certain behaviors. Do you think the donors will be surprised to learn that the intended beneficiaries died from suicide before they could benefit from their donation? We don’t know because they haven’t been asked to say anything. Write to them and ask; a handy list is included at the end of this letter. To members of the press who receive this letter, here is a simple way to get the right attention: “Schlumberger-funded institute accused of failing to help distressed students.”

The fourth is to understand what faculty are going through. It’s not just the toxic advisor-student relationships that need to change, it’s toxic administration-faculty relationships too. It’s well known that academia is a back-stabbing environment, and to illustrate, when Kelly Caitlin died, the wallpaper on her phone was a picture of a bunch of knives stabbed into someone’s back. For outsiders, it may come as a surprise that a professor of theoretical physics here at Stanford died of suicide in December. You may be even more surprised to learn that the former Dean of the Business school had an affair with one of the lecturer’s wives, fired the lecturer, and tried to nullify the Stanford-undersigned lease on his home. Many faculty have resorted to hiring attorneys, and at present, there are over 30 faculty member at Stanford University who have currently obtained legal representation to protect themselves from the administration that employs them. When our faculty are just as depressed as the students, it’s no surprise that drowning students do not get pulled out of the water– faculty are drowning right next to them. Understanding the challenges that faculty face means that we need to institute policies that hold the administration accountable for the welfare of its students and the faculty as well. Healthy professors lead to healthy students.

The fifth is to band together. It’s incredible how powerful the #MeToo movement is. If students and faculty band together as a common voice, we can achieve change. I propose the #DontHide hashtag, although perhaps someone can come up with something more catchy. #DontHide tells the administration not to be like Scot Peterson and run and hide when they find out that someone is going through a rough patch. #DontHide also tells students who have mental health challenges not to hide it but to speak up, knowing that the faculty and student body will be compassionate and helpful. Get the attention of the donors while you’re at it. Here’s an example: “I [stand with students and] demand a mental health accountability policy at Stanford for students and faculty. #DontHide @Stanford @Google @Apple @Nike @Schlumberger @Nvidia [insert more donors here].” When enough people do this, the donors will ask for it, and we’ll finally have a transparent, common-sense policy instituted.

My sixth and final suggestion is to understand how this has affected you. The issues that we face at the University do not stay here when we move on, we carry them for the rest of our lives, just as we carry the memories of those we lost. We look up to Stanford officials and try to copy their behaviors so that we can one day rise to their level. But it’s a double-edged sword. When they fail to behave like compassionate leaders, but default to the cowardice of bureaucracy, they teach us to do it too. We must be conscious of ourselves and understand that we are now carriers with the potential to spread that toxicity at home and at work. Stanford is supposed to help you become a good leader, and good leaders are compassionate. We must unlearn these damaging behaviors through formal training in leadership and interpersonal communication, independent of what we learned here at Stanford.

Serious problems require serious action. I hope that you will not be like the administration, which cowardly shields itself from liability at the expense of compassion, and instead actually do something about the mental health crisis. With these suggestions, you are now able to fight for those who can not fight for themselves, such as students who are too depressed to get out of bed, and indeed, you may be their only hope! So please write a letter to donors, Tweet, and talk to your fellow students and faculty about how you feel, especially department chairs like Gianluca Iaccarino and administrators like Susie Brubaker-Cole, Harry J. Elam, and Patricia Gumport. Whatever you do, #DontHide.

In closing, I want to thank you for reading this long letter. I also want to thank you for remembering the students we lost in this mental health crisis. You are the voices of the change required to ensure that we don’t lose more of our friends and colleagues.

— Anonymous Stanford researcher

Editor’s note: The author of this op-ed has been granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation from the University.

Contact the author of this piece at stanfordmentalhealth ‘at’

Support is available for students through Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at (650) 498-2336. The Graduate Life Office is available at (650) 736-7078, or 24/7 at (650) 723-8222, pager ID number 25085. The Bridge Peer Counseling Center offers counseling by trained students 24/7 at (650) 723-3392. The Faculty Staff Help Center, located in Kingscote Gardens, offers confidential help for Stanford faculty and staff.










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