Op-Ed: Hennessy reflects on tragedy

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Op-Ed: Hennessy reflects on tragedy

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May 4, 2007
By JOHN HENNESSY

On April 16, 2007, our country suffered a terrible tragedy when a troubled student killed 32 members of the Virginia Tech community.

Such tragedies are unfathomable. Words, as eloquent and sincere as they may be, fail to convey the shock and sadness we all felt upon hearing that news.

At Stanford, I was struck by the deep and sincere evidence of sympathy and concern throughout campus, from the moments of silence at many meetings to the cards signed in dining halls to the moving ceremony at Memorial Church. Today, Stanford's condolences stand among those of more than 300 other colleges and universities on the Virginia Tech website. Ours is a caring community, and that fact was never so clear as it was on April 16 and the days immediately thereafter.

Not surprisingly, I have been asked about emergency protocols here at Stanford. I want you to know that in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, a group has been convened by Vice President Randy Livingston to review all of our emergency protocols, as well as our methods of communication. Stanford has had an emergency management program in place for many years. The emergency plan has evolved from one primarily focused on earthquake preparation and response and now includes an "all hazards" approach. We practice annually for all types of emergencies, including intentional acts. In addition, we have various methods available through which to communicate with the entire campus, but we are seeking to improve the speed and efficiency with which we can do so. Our emergency protocols are good, but the realities of today's society demand that they be even better.

As important as they are, emergency protocols are unfortunately after-event procedures, and therefore only part of a necessary dialogue. As has been made very clear in the days following the tragedy at Virgina Tech, the challenge of how society addresses mental health issues is serious and complicated. We pray that what happened at Virginia Tech was a horrible aberration that will not be repeated anywhere. We know in retrospect that more must be done to recognize the warning signs of mental distress, including its potential for violence. We know we must learn more about how and when to intervene appropriately.

The deaths at Virginia Tech are a tragedy of national proportions, but college campuses are experiencing smaller, quieter, yet profoundly distressing tragedies every day — young people who have chosen to take their own lives. The Stanford community has been no exception in this regard. Since the beginning of the academic year, we have lost several Stanford students. As we think through the maze of mental health challenges, we must also confront the problem of suicide — openly, constructively and with determination.

For many, the imponderability of suicide may make us feel powerless to know where to begin in addressing such a painfully personal issue. So perhaps the place to start is in the recognition that we all do indeed have a role to play. A university is a deeply intimate community — what touches one, truly touches all. That means that as a community we have a set of responsibilities to each other. We have the responsibility to understand, to comfort, to reach out and, in some cases, to act.

Mental and emotional distress know no bounds of gender, background or color. I am hopeful for a day when the stigma associated with depression and other mental health problems — whether imposed by others or one's self — dissipates and goes the way of other misplaced fears and biases. Helping each other overcome that stigma is an important first step.

This stigma, which often results in a reluctance to seek help, implies an additional responsibility: We must share a commitment to be compassionate, to not turn away from seeing and acknowledging a difficult circumstance, and then take the opportunity to reach out to help — or even seek help ourselves.

There are many resources available at Stanford, including Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Vaden Health Center, the Bridge Peer Counseling Center, the Office for Religious Life, the community centers and residence staff, among others. But these resources can only be brought to bear if they are engaged.

Last fall, Provost John Etchemendy appointed a group to examine issues around the psychological well being of our students and assess the services we offer in this area. Other colleges and universities are taking similar measures in the face of an increasing demand for mental health and well being services. Some of you will be asked to participate in focus groups this spring or to take an online survey, and I hope you will choose to participate.

It goes without saying that one suicide is too many, and we must look within ourselves to be certain that we are doing everything we can to prevent such tragedies. I have been gratified by the strength and compassion of students, faculty and staff in the last few weeks. I hope and believe we can build on that to create an even healthier, safer and more caring community.

John Hennessy is the president of Stanford University.

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Original Source: <a href="http://daily.stanford.edu/article/2007/5/4/opedHennessyReflectsOnTragedy"> Stanford Daily - May 4, 2007 </a>

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John Hennessy

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2007-06-13

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Sara Hood

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James Hohmann
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The Stanford Daily
<jhohmann@stanford.edu>

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eng

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John Hennessy, "Op-Ed: Hennessy reflects on tragedy," in The April 16 Archive, Item #513, http://april16archive.org/items/show/513 (accessed September 1, 2014).