Student’s suicide becomes cause for awareness

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The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine lost one of its own to suicide this past fall. This isn’t the first suicide to befall a veterinary college, but reactions by the family, students, and veterinary college show an ongoing evolution in the way such adversities are treated and talked about.

Second-year student David J. Hilton of Virginia Beach, Virginia, died by suicide Sept. 23, 2015. He was a 2010 graduate of Old Dominion University, where he received his bachelor’s in biology with a minor in criminal justice, according to his obituary in The Columbus Dispatch. He was a staff member at the Norton Road Veterinary Hospital in Galloway, Ohio.

“He wasn’t on our radar. We had no idea there was anything going on. I think that was a struggle for folks to get their minds around,” said Dr. Linda Lord, associate dean for professional programs at Ohio State, at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ Veterinary and Social Work Summit, Nov. 2-3, 2015, in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Hilton went missing from his apartment Sept. 21; his body was found two days later. On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 24, students first learned of the news.

“There’s never any good way to tell the student body, but we did get an email, so everyone had an understanding of what was going on. They canceled classes that day and rescheduled exams. The school has been so supportive in every way they could have been throughout that time,” said Shawn Wharrey (Ohio State ’17), senior delegate for Ohio State to the Student AVMA House of Delegates.

Dr. Lord
Dr. Linda Lord, associate dean for professional programs at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, talks at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ Veterinary and Social Work Summit about how the veterinary college responded after a second-year student committed suicide this past fall. (Photo by Phil Snow/University of Tennessee CVM)

Students organized a candlelight vigil that Thursday night that professors and staff also attended. In the following days, other veterinary colleges showed support with flowers, sympathy cards, and messages on social media. Wharrey says he was also touched by Hilton’s family members, who arrived on campus the day after they heard the news.

“They knew that suicide is a terrible thing, but they didn’t want to hide the fact he took his own life. They used it more as a way to debunk. People often don’t want to say it’s suicide because there’s that stigma there, but the family wanted to make sure they were upfront and open,” Wharrey said. “His mom said a few words at the vigil about how there are resources available and that holding the pain in is not the way to go. I thought it was awesome for her to say something like that, especially after just losing her son. I couldn’t imagine being so put together like that.”

Hilton’s family also wrote a letter to the students, part of which read: “The pressures of school, work, and relationships were just as real to him as they are to you. Unfortunately, DJ internalized them and for only reasons that he and God will ever understand he chose not to seek help but must have felt the only way out was to end his own life.” The letter went on to urge students to talk to one another or faculty, friends, family, or professionals if they need help.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our university for supporting us—from the campus police to communications to student advocacy. They were really supporting us during those initial days and what we did after it,” Dr. Lord said. “We were very lucky. We had a family who was willing to address and acknowledge what happened with Dave. Otherwise, it would have been more difficult for the students and others impacted by his death.”

She added that since Hilton’s death, students who had never come forward before for help have been doing so.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a school or clinic, any time you have an event where you lose someone—it could be a car accident—it’s helpful to reach out to the community around you, know what your resources are, and make sure they are available for those who need them,” Dr. Lord said.

The David J. Hilton Memorial Scholarship Fund has been set up in his honor. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline website, provides useful resources, including how to find a therapist or support group.

Related JAVMA content:

Veterinary students react to deaths (May 15, 2015)

Finding calm amid the chaos (Nov. 15, 2013)