A Message to the Sigma Chi Brotherhood
Below is a letter from Bruce and Karen Chessen, the parents of Alex Chessen, MONTANA 2014. Alex committed suicide on Jan. 8, 2013.
To the Sigma Chi Brothers:
Being invited to pledge Sigma Chi was one of the proudest days of our son’s life. During Christmas 2012, Alex told us that being a Sigma Chi was “the best part” of having chosen to go to college at the University of Montana. He enjoyed every aspect: the rituals, the social life, the history. He loved the fact that he had “brothers” not only in the Montana chapter, but in Sigma Chi chapters across the country. Two weeks after this conversation, Alex took his own life.
Alex was back at school when he died. He was a junior in college and had lived away from home — including summers — for three years and, like many young men, part of becoming an independent adult meant there were aspects of his life that he chose to keep private from his parents. We will never know all the details leading up to his suicide. Yes, there was an event that for him was devastating, and triggered the suicide act. But more importantly, we believe he had become depressed — maybe not even realizing it, or acknowledging to himself, that he was.
The untreated depression snowballed, resulting in his death.
We, and Alex’s two sisters, will always struggle with his loss. His death has left a huge hole in our family and our hearts. We not only loved him, but we really enjoyed him. He was interesting, clever, intellectually curious, and had a wickedly dry sense of humor. Several of his friends still come over for dinner occasionally, and they obviously miss him too, and continue to struggle with grief and confusion over his suicide. It is our hope, in reaching out to you, that something positive can emerge from such a tragedy.
Of course we had discussions with Alex about life’s challenges. But what we wish we could say again to him, over and over, is this: Navigating the transition into manhood is complicated. It can be exhilarating at times, and it can be very difficult. There are relationship struggles, some of which feel devastating. There are many stresses: figuring out what you want to do with your life, academic and social pressures, handling finances, managing school and maybe a job, or even the pressure of finding a job. These struggles are especially complicated for young men. You get a lot of mixed messages in our society: You need to be independent. Handle it yourself. Man-up. Cowboy up. Power through it. These bits of advice can be appropriate forms of encouragement when you need to handle that conflict with your roommate, power through those push-ups, or man-up and study when you’d rather be socializing. But they are not appropriate encouragement when you are suffering from depression.
Depression is more than sadness. Sadness is a mood, like fear and joy, and is a normal reaction to life’s ups and downs. But deep sadness and an emptiness that becomes overwhelming, and lasts for long periods, can be depression. It is real, it is serious, and it doesn’t go away by itself. You can’t just “power through it.” It is not a weakness or a lack of willpower. It is a medical condition, like diabetes: a chemical imbalance in your body. And like diabetes, if left untreated, it can worsen and become life-threatening. Trying to ignore it, to just “power through it,” allows it to grow. Unfortunately, in our society, men especially have been reluctant to seek treatment for depression. They might not even realize they have it, because although they might experience symptoms also common to women — such as feeling blue, extremely tired, or having difficulty sleeping or concentrating — male depression can be masked by unhealthy coping behaviors such as irritability and inappropriate anger, alcohol or substance use, or risky behaviors such as reckless driving, behaviors that in themselves can have serious consequences. Men can feel that pervasive feelings of sadness and emptiness should be suppressed. But that doesn’t work.
It’s a serious mistake to think a person can manage depression alone. If someone even suspects they are experiencing symptoms of a stroke, they are told to go the ER immediately to have it checked out, before there is irreversible damage. Depression should be no different. If you even suspect you might have symptoms, they need to be checked out, because suicide is irreversible damage. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for persons age 15 to 24. It is the second leading cause of death among college students. And the number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. Alex’s suicide was one of SEVEN that year on his campus. It was one of FOUR that year among Sigma Chi undergraduates. It is estimated that up to one-in-three college students suffers from depression. How many brothers are in your Sigma Chi chapter? You do the math.
Seeking help for any serious condition is a reasonable and mature act. That suspicious lump could be cancer, and the reasonable response is to have it checked out, to catch it early before it spreads. Insomnia, reduced interest in activities, and irrational anger could be depression. It needs to be checked out because depression’s chemical imbalance leaves you less able to cope with life’s ups and downs. Waiting to see if it goes away is not a good idea. It needs to be evaluated as soon as possible, before that next bump in the road is one that just seems too much. Even if you’re able to truck along, carrying the depression, it continues to interfere with the quality of your life and relationships. You deserve to feel better. Like many illnesses, depression is highly treatable; there are treatment options.
The Sigma Chi Fraternity has chosen to step-up in a big way by providing this website. They understand that depression is a serious condition that impacts the lives and well-being of many brothers. They care that brothers have died by suicides that might have been prevented, so they have provided this website for you to use to help yourself, or a brother. Alex might have trucked along okay for quite awhile, but he still would have had depression. And triggering events pop up all the time — a break-up, job loss, the sudden death of a parent or friend, or maybe just the burden of ongoing depression. Alex had older mentors in his chapter that he respected, and “little brothers” he cared about. All these brothers were important to him. So take care of yourself, and be a role model to your brothers by using this website. Learn to recognize the signs of depression in men. Be aware of the tools to keep yourself healthy, and the options and resources available to you if you, or a brother, are struggling. Acknowledge and support the courage a brother shows when he confronts personal issues in a responsible manner. By doing so, you will be paying respect to the memory of all the Sigma Chi brothers, including Alex, who have died from depression and suicide.
We are grateful that Sigma Chi was part of Alex’s life. We are deeply honored to have been invited to contribute to this website, and will always carry the Sigma Chi brothers in our hearts. Take care. Really.
Karen and Bruce Chessen