Letter to the Editor: Remembering Jason Arkin on 2-year anniversary with continued calls for awareness, change

As we remember our son Jason Arkin on the two-year anniversary of his death by suicide, we wanted to reiterate our letter to the University originally written in September of 2015 with suggestions we made at that time with pertinent updates. The following represents a summary of the events leading up to his death.

Jason was on medication for his clinical depression for eight years, since he was 12. We first realized something was worse in November 2012 when we received a call saying he had reached out to CAPS, especially due to anxiety about finals. But he was told he had too many problems and had to choose between being put on a waitlist — which would likely last six weeks — or seek private help. Though we tried to make calls to other providers, we found we could not make appointments for a child 18 or older, and Jason himself was too anxious to make an appointment. He chose to spend time studying for finals instead, and ended up doing fairly well. Records show CAPS tried to call him twice afterward into January 2013, but he did not answer and they closed the file. No attempt was made for any face-to-face encounter, or to facilitate direct contact through a resident assistant, director or staff.

In late May 2014, as finals were again approaching, he became depressed and anxious and went to see his McCormick School of Engineering counselor. They expedited a visit with CAPS and called us in Kansas City. His mother and sister flew to Chicago and determined he would return home with them; defer finals to Fall Quarter pending Jason’s participation in an intense Kansas City outpatient program, forgo his study abroad in Munich and participate in a transcranial magnetic stimulation program. He went from lying in bed to participating fully in day-to-day activities, and went back to campus for Fall Quarter in 2014 rejuvenated and proceeded to ace those two finals.

All was well until the end of April 2015. He went to his engineering counselor again, apparently with similar concerns, and dropped two classes within days. Though we were told this is common before deadline, particularly with engineering students, it seems such activity is not flagged as potentially dangerous behavior of those who have already exhibited similar patterns precipitating medical leave for mental illness. We did not hear from Jason for about 10 days, and once we were finally able to reach him through his resident assistant, he said he was good enough to remain there. Though in retrospect we should have driven to Chicago regardless, we were under the impression he would be under some surveillance and that we would be called — as we were prior — if there was any concern. Our last contact with him was May 5. Again he sounded reasonable.

Four days later, we received a call from the hospital May 19 at 6:20 a.m. and put together that he had attempted to commit suicide. He passed away during our drive to Chicago, of cardiac arrest from the metabolites of 90 Wellbutrin pills, at Evanston Hospital.

Our family is not one to assign blame. If anything the guilt is inward. But we believe there are several lessons to be learned and the opportunity to facilitate change. We have been encouraged by an outpouring of support from family and friends, and have started a non-profit foundation called SPEAK UP: Suicide Prevention Education and Awareness for Kids United as Partners. We have started a free teen education and awareness campaign in local middle and high schools called You Be You, a positive message of inclusiveness and personal importance. We emphasize collaboration and teamwork in an effort to prepare our children for the next steps in life.

We would like to see change at NU as well. We would like a screening tool to identify students with mental illness, and encourage that they be briefed during freshman orientation about mental health resources on campus. They should be allowed to waive confidentiality so that NU will notify parents when there is concern. We’d also like resident assistants to have opportunities to be trained about concerning situations, and specifically have a list of those more vulnerable who may need special attention. There should be a higher sense of alarm for those that have previously sought out help, as well as a policy for resident assistants call CAPS with their concerns. Our hope is that a university of NU’s caliber will consider these ideas to help nurture those who truly need it and not penalize them. As an update, we are encouraged by the addition of psychologists to CAPS and the abolition of session limits, which were set at 12 per academic career at the time of Jason’s death, but concerned about the the closing of the Women’s Center.

The stigma is already too great. We need to encourage conversation, peer to peer and staff to student. We miss our Jason tremendously but, more importantly, we want to give others a better chance to survive in this difficult world. Thank you for your attention.

Steve, Karen and Jennifer Arkin: Father, mother and sister of Jason Arkin