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After wave of campus suicides, a victim’s family fights for change

A string of suicides has rocked the University of Pennsylvania

TEANECK, New Jersey – When Katherine Frink-Hamlett's son, Timothy, was in college, she had the discussion with him about alcohol, sex and drugs. She never thought to talk to him about mental illness. Why would she? He was a gifted student-athlete and had many friends. For two years, he ran track and field, impressing his coaches and fellow teammates at the University of Pennsylvania.

But things started to change in the beginning of his sophomore year. Frink-Hamlett says she immediately sought help for her son, but they were unable to use UPenn’s Counseling and Psychological Services. The reason, she says, was because she couldn't make the appointments for her son, which is against UPenn rules, and the office hours did not accommodate his aggressive academic and practice schedules.

Instead, the concerned parents sought the help of private mental health professionals for their son.

Not long after, Frink-Hamlett learned that her son had been removed from the track team after missing practices. The worried mother pulled her son from school to take a leave of absence in September 2014.

Last year, the Hamlett family celebrated Christmas together at their home in Teaneck, N.J. The following day, Timothy Hamlett left. He would never return.

Timothy Hamlett, left, with his mother.
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“I wish I did know more about it in hindsight.” Frink-Hamlett told America Tonight. “As his mother, I think I had to bear the ultimate responsibility for what happens to my son.”

On May 29, police discovered his body in the Hudson River and ruled his death a suicide after reportedly jumping from the George Washington Bridge.

Frink-Hamlett sat down with America Tonight just five months after learning of her only child’s death, still lacking answers as to why he made the unthinkable choice.

“It never crossed my mind that my child would die by suicide and it never dawned on me that he would jump off a bridge,” she said. “The stereotype of what suicide looks like is not really what it is. The image of who will complete suicide is so different and I'm learning this now.”

What Frink-Hamlett would soon learn is that suicide is the No. 2 cause of death for young adults between the ages of 15 and 34, as well as the No. 2 cause of death for college students.

Breaking down the stigma

On the Penn campus, students call it “Penn Face.” Students pretend everything is fine, even when they’re struggling, trying to conform to the Ivy League’s culture of perfection that many argue has led to a wave of suicides in the past two years.

David Cahn, a student at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, spent six months covering Hamlett’s disappearance for the school’s newspaper. The mystery behind the tragedy inspired the 19-year-old finance major to look to his fellow students and university and ask what drove Hamlett to make an unthinkable choice.

“There's a lot of academic pressure. There's a lot of social pressure, with these athletes, there's a lot of this athletic pressure…and I think a lot of the time that comes together to put students through a lot of stress,” Cahn told America Tonight. “When you combine that with a culture that won't acknowledge it, where everyone had to [have] the perfect start to get into the school, especially at these top universities, they don't want to acknowledge that they're struggling with a lot of these issues at the same time.”

Not alone

From February 2013 to December 2014, there were eight suicides at Penn before Hamlett took his own life becoming the ninth suicide in less than two years.

And countless others suffer in silence.

“It's almost as if the university is convinced by our ‘Penn Faces,’” Cahn said. “By pretending we're OK, the university can go along with it and they have their own ‘Penn Face.’”

He added: “If the students are going to pretend they're OK, the administration is going to pretend things are OK. And they're going to take steps to address this PR problem of people committing suicide, but they're not going to address the underlying causes.”

Penn student David Cahn spent six months covering Timothy Hamlett’s disappearance for the school’s newspaper.
America Tonight

Cahn decided to break down the stigma of mental health and turned to Hamlett’s mother, who was determined to turn the loss of her only child into change. The result of their collaboration is the Hamlett-Reed Mental Health Initiative. Also included in the initiative is Linda Douglas, whose son, Theodoric Reed, committed suicide in August 2014.

The initiative is comprised of six proposals: 

  • Designated Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) therapists for incoming students.
  • Anonymity for counseling visits.
  • Online CAPS scheduling.
  • Proactive and regular CAPS communication with students.
  • A focus on student groups, particularly those prone to stress.
  • An emphasis on CAPS during Penn’s new student orientation.

America Tonight repeatedly reached out to the University for comment, but was told that Dr. William Alexander, director of CAPS, had a “full” schedule and was unavailable for comment. The same goes for Penn President Amy Gutmann, whose schedule is “booked many weeks (in some cases months) in advance.”

“She didn't have time to schedule to speak with us either,” Cahn said. “We wrote a letter signed by over 500 people, including the parents of two suicide victims, including class presidents every year, including the head of sorority council… We got together and we said, ‘It’s time for a change.’ … Amy Gutmann didn't have time to respond. In fact, for all we know, she didn't get the letter.”

A national problem

"The stereotype of what suicide looks like is not really what it is," Katherine Frink-Hamlett said. "The image of who will complete suicide is so different, and I'm learning this now.”

When it comes to suicides at elite universities, Penn isn’t alone.

Six MIT students committed suicide in a 14-month span, spanning from 2014 to earlier this year. Cornell University received the dubious distinction as “the suicide school” after six students died during the 2009-2010 academic year.

Frink-Hamlett is determined to change these kinds of numbers just five months after losing her son.

“I hope that he is the last suicide at Penn,” Frink-Hamlett said. “The grief is enormous, but the goal is to make sure that there are meaningful changes that have long lasting impact, so that parents are going to their children's graduations and not to their funerals.”

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