What They Didn't Know
Bethesda’s Brian Go was smart, funny and kind. Everyone says so. He also was suicidally depressed—something his parents believe college counselors knew, but tragically failed to share with his family
Around 10 p.m. on May 15, 2009, Brian Go, a 20-year-old junior at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, called his parents at home in Bethesda.
For Brian’s mother, Margaret, it was a typical late-night call from college: a rundown of family news and a discussion about logistics for Brian’s upcoming semester abroad in Valencia, Spain, where he’d be doing research through a grant from Caltech.
She told him a funny story about a recent visit to a cousin, which made him laugh.
His laughter pleased her, because she knew the spring term had been rough for him. In addition to carrying a double major in math and computer science at one of the most demanding colleges in the country, Brian—known to his Caltech classmates as “BGo”—had been elected president of his coed residence hall, Page House. But he’d immediately faced a challenge in that role: Concern over excessive alcohol consumption had led the university to impose a ban on alcohol at Page. Brian argued that his housemates would simply party elsewhere, thereby destroying house camaraderie. Reportedly, his eloquence moved one dean to tears. His leadership “impressed us to no end,” she later told the student newspaper, The California Tech. But the plea went unheeded, and Brian felt he’d let down his housemates.
Margaret also knew that her son was heartbroken when his girlfriend broke up with him and told him there was no hope of getting back together. During this phone call, however, he seemed philosophical about the ban and more resigned to the breakup.
“Are you happy, sad or medium?” she asked—a question she often put to her three children as they were growing up.
“Medium,” Brian said.
He chatted for a while with his father, Delfin, and his sister, Maddie, then 12. He told both that he loved them, which wasn’t unusual, Margaret says. He asked to speak to his brother, Mike, then 17, and when told that he was sleeping, agreed they could talk later.
But there was no later. The call was Brian’s farewell.
Early on Sunday morning, May 17, the Gos got a call from the Pasadena police: Brian was missing.
Over the next 12 hours, Margaret combed through her son’s cellphone bill, asking friends for clues to his whereabouts. She steeled herself to ask Brian’s roommate whether he thought her son might harm himself over his failed romance.
“Brian? No way,” was the resounding reply.
What the Gos didn’t know was that their optimistic, kind-hearted and brilliant son had threatened to jump off the roof of a campus building two weeks earlier, following the breakup with his girlfriend. Nor did they know that in the previous month Brian had spoken with two deans, a resident adviser and three psychologists at Caltech about wanting to kill himself.
Around 8 that night, as Delfin was en route to Los Angeles to help with the search, Margaret got a call from a dean with whom Brian had become close. Brian’s body had been found on the roof of a Caltech building. In the hours after calling home, he had committed suicide.
Shock reverberated through the Go family and everyone else who had known the young man. Two of Brian’s former teachers at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (B-CC) were so shaken by the news that they immediately distributed their cellphone numbers to their students, imploring them to call if they ever felt they had nowhere to turn.
“He was the smartest kid I ever taught, and he was the whole package—humble, smart and kind,” says math teacher Sarah Straus, who recalls substitute teachers reporting that the then-10th-grader would teach pre-calculus in her absence. “He genuinely saw the beauty of math, and he wanted everyone else to love it as much as he did.”
Long before Caltech, where Brian published an academic paper on software, computers were his forte. He developed a computer game based on Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved for English teacher Kathryn Kirk’s class. But he also wrote poetry that moved his classmates, Kirk recalls. His writing for his Spanish class was “poetic and beautiful,” according to his Spanish teacher, Beth Groeneman. “Whatever Brian did turned to gold,” she says.
In addition to his “warmth and brilliance,” recalls Laura Swartz, a friend since elementary school, there was his enthusiasm. “If he was excited, you could feel it. It’s like he vibrated and couldn’t hold it all inside. His death crushed me...crushed all of us.”
A week before he died, Brian visited Josh Klontz, a close B-CC friend who attended Harvey Mudd College in nearby Claremont, Calif. Klontz later told the Gos that Brian revealed nothing about his inner turmoil that weekend.
“He was always eager to help tutor, mentor and love those around him, never expecting anything in return,” says Klontz, with whom Brian won three first-place prizes at the Montgomery County Science Fair. “What I regret most is not having the opportunity to return the favor in his time of need.”
But who even knew Brian was in need, if not his roommate, his family or his good friend from high school?
The Gos came to believe that top university administrators and counselors were aware of the severity of Brian’s emotional state and failed to inform them—either through negligence or a misapprehension of privacy laws. On May 17, 2010, a year after Brian’s death, the Gos brought a $20 million wrongful death suit against two deans and three therapists at Caltech.
College suicide is relatively rare—7.5 out of every 100,000 students, accounting for about half the suicides among all young people between 18 and 24, according to the American College Health Association. After accidents, it is the second most common cause of death on campus, however, and about a third of American colleges report at least one suicide every year.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90 percent of students who kill themselves have a psychiatric illness at the time of their death—most commonly depression, substance abuse, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. And mental illness appears to be on the rise on college campuses. The American Freshman National Norms 2011 survey reported that barely half of college freshmen self-rated their mental health as good or average, the fewest in 25 years.
Part of this uptick in reporting is due to decreased stigma, says Dr. Mary-Jeanne Raleigh, director of counseling services at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “Students are more comfortable labeling their emotions,” she says, “either because they’ve had therapy prior to coming to campus, or they know it’s OK to ask for help.”
Such shifts in attitude, as well as advances in psychotropic medication, have enabled many more students with a diagnosed mental illness to successfully navigate college life. But for some, college is when adult symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia first appear. It’s developmental—not college itself—Raleigh emphasizes. “That’s why you need really good diagnosticians at the college-age level,” she says.
When a psychological issue occurs in college students with no previous history, says Dr. Amita Jha, a psychiatrist who works with adolescents in Rockville, parents can be blindsided. It’s not unusual for a struggling young person to try to hide what’s happening, even if he or she has a good relationship with his or her parents.
“Students think they shouldn’t have to burden their parents,” Jha says. “It’s a great sense of failure, not feeling right.”
In Brian’s case, his suicide note was his only admission to his family that he felt himself unraveling. “I am wired wrong,” he wrote, “and do not belong in this world.”
“He was so clearly not in his right mind,” Margaret says. “And I kept thinking: If only he’d gone to see a counselor.”
A former social worker, Margaret sought to assuage her grief by reading everything she could about suicide and by looking back at her son’s life for clues she might have missed.
As a child, she says, Brian was talkative and inventive, staging elaborate theatrical productions with his younger siblings, and eager to engage adults on topics such as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
His polysyllabic vocabulary and grown-up interests made him a target of bullying in middle school, but he told his parents nothing of the taunts until eighth grade, when a group of boys surrounded him in the lunchroom at Westland Middle School and physically assaulted him. He was bruised and limped for several days afterward, his mother says.
Westland handled the situation well, according to Margaret, and the perpetrators were disciplined. However, she was unnerved by later retaliation, including a burning bag of dog feces left on their front step, and she pleaded with Delfin, a World Bank employee, to apply for a job overseas. Delfin, who had experienced discrimination while growing up ethnic Chinese in the Philippines, resisted, arguing that leaving town amounted to a victory for bullies.
Immediately after the incident, Brian was reluctant to return to school. Feeling at a loss to help her son cope, Margaret sent him to a therapist, whose diagnosis was “adjustment disorder,” defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “marked distress in excess of what would be expected” in response to a stressful life event.
But after talking to the therapist, Margaret says, “Brian squared his shoulders and went back to school.” A journal entry he made during that period reads, “I have a small body, so I must develop my mind.”
At B-CC, Brian did just that, enrolling in the challenging International Baccalaureate program and bonding with friends who enjoyed the life of the mind as much as he did—kids who’d spend their lunch hour prepping for the Science Bowl against their crosstown rival, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
With Brian as team captain, the students practiced against their teachers. Even when the teachers had the questions ahead of time, the students won, Straus recalls. “We couldn’t click fast enough.”
Reveling in an environment where it was cool to be smart, Brian played up geek-chic by adding rearview mirrors and a drinking tube to his taped-together glasses. But he was more than a brain. He was a debater, a fencer, an Ultimate Frisbee player, an Eagle Scout, a volunteer tutor. Every classmate and teacher interviewed says he had a lot of friends.
When he was accepted into Caltech, the Gos thought it was a good fit: academically intense but small (only 900 undergraduates) and friendly, with a lush Pacific Rim setting and many other students of Asian heritage.
“I remember how excited he was for Caltech,” recalls Laura Swartz, who attended B-CC’s Sadie Hawkins dance senior year with Brian. “He had his bright orange cleats [Caltech’s color] for Ultimate Frisbee, an orange disc—he couldn’t hold in his excitement.”
After Brian enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 2006, reality appeared to live up to expectation. “He always seemed so happy,” Margaret says. As for the things he didn’t like, Brian threw himself into changing them, convincing the ombudsman to make a difficult freshman class pass-fail, for instance.
He worked hard—pulling all-nighters to finish problems everyone else had given up on—but he’d also skip a day of research to go to the beach, friends and faculty recalled at Caltech’s memorial service on May 26, 2009.
They spoke that day of his dazzling intelligence, his generosity and humor. They talked about how he decided to learn drums and taught himself to play a creditable cover of the band Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?” by watching YouTube videos. And about how, at the end of sophomore year, he resolved to move beyond his geeky pajama-bottoms-and-glasses look, and got contact lenses, a new haircut and started working out. And about how he became president of the “work-hard-play-hard” Page House by popular acclaim.
Margaret had flown out to attend the service reluctantly, aware that campus memorials can trigger copycat suicides. “But my husband wanted to preserve Brian’s memory and wanted to be magnanimous, and he asked me strongly to go,” she says.
While she was there, the mother of a close female friend of Brian’s told her several times that “[Caltech] should have done more to help him.”
Margaret found the remark puzzling. “But this was before we knew he had attempted [suicide],” she says, “and Caltech hadn’t told us.”
On June 10, 2009, Jackson Wang, a Caltech senior, committed suicide two days before he would have received his diploma. In July, Long Phan, a graduate student there, also took his own life. Both young men killed themselves the same way Brian had. (Because of the copycat phenomenon, experts say that suicide methods should not be reported in the media.)
The question that continued to haunt the Gos was why their articulate and extroverted son had not reached out for help. Concerned about the impact Brian’s death might have on his two closest college friends, Margaret kept in touch with them by email. One, Mason Smith, had a summer internship in New Jersey that year, and she invited him to spend the Fourth of July weekend in Bethesda.
During the visit, Smith mentioned that 12 days before his death, Brian had gone to the roof of a Caltech building intending to jump headfirst. But he lost his nerve and called Smith. Trained in peer suicide prevention, Smith talked to Brian for an hour and a half, and eventually persuaded him to come down.
Smith referred to this incident while in the car with Delfin, who “almost drove off the road,” Margaret says. Smith told the Gos that he urged Brian to seek help from the Caltech counseling center, but that he himself hadn’t reported the incident.
“After talking him down, I don’t think that I would’ve said he was suicidal had I been asked,” Smith says now. “At the time, I would’ve said that he had just hit a low point, that it was out of his system, and that it could only go up from there.”
Horrified, Margaret contacted Brian’s close female friend and learned that on the night of April 25, after his girlfriend broke up with him, Brian had gotten drunk and threatened to stab himself.
Margaret also learned that he had spoken to the girl about suicide on subsequent occasions, and sworn her to secrecy. But the girl told her mother, who became so concerned about the toll this burden was taking on her daughter that she called Caltech’s counseling center several times, asking them to help Brian.
“We are helping him,” the friend’s mother was told.
Margaret then obtained Brian’s records from the counseling center and learned for the first time that he had been seeing a therapist periodically since his freshman year. On the morning after threatening to stab himself, he’d emailed the therapist: “This year I met someone truly amazing. ...She broke up with me today. I am very heartbroken and am beside myself with grief. This is coming at a very difficult time in my academic and extracurricular life, as well, and I am just struggling to find the will to go on.”
Brian made an appointment with his therapist, who noted that his mood was “dysthymic,” or mildly depressed. He began writing suicide notes that were later found on his computer, and went to a dorm roof intending to jump. After Smith talked him down, Brian emailed one of the deans, who sent him to the counseling center for a crisis evaluation. The counselor on call (not his regular therapist) noted that Brian described his climb to the rooftop along with his plan of jumping off. “Client was very articulate. ...He stated that he is not feeling suicidal today and is not even having those thoughts.”
The counselor’s notes report that they discussed a plan of action should his suicidal thoughts return, such as reaching out to a friend or recontacting the counseling center.
That their suicidal son was allowed to return to the dorm with nothing more than a “plan of action” was the last straw for the Gos. “A young man who goes up on the roof and says he wants to jump off headfirst needs immediate medical attention,” Margaret says. She cites an incident later that summer when a woman attempted to jump off an L.A. freeway overpass. “The police didn’t ask her if she wanted to go to the hospital—they took her.”
That summer, the Gos decided to sue Caltech and began searching for a California lawyer, although it wasn’t until March 2010 that the Heimberg Law Group in L.A. accepted their case on a contingency basis. Concerned that the suit would not be filed before the one-year statute of limitations expired, Margaret also filed a complaint with the California Board of Psychology against the two therapists who had seen Brian, as well as the head of Caltech’s counseling center in February 2010.
Suing Caltech meant antagonizing the place Brian had deeply loved. Some of Brian’s friends tried to dissuade the Gos; others stopped speaking to them.
“A lot of people are asking why we’re blaming the school,” Margaret says. “I believe to this day that Brian’s death was preventable, and I cannot conceive why the many people who knew [he was suicidal] didn’t call us. ...We hope the lawsuit will change the way the college deals with mental illness in the future.”
At many colleges around the country, changes already are occurring in the way cases like Brian’s are handled. The 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which made 18-year-olds custodians of their educational records, is cited by colleges as the reason they don’t involve parents when mental health issues emerge on campus. But FERPA allows the release of information when a student’s health and safety are at risk.
Following the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, where a mentally ill student killed 32 people before committing suicide, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines affirming that colleges may contact the parents of emotionally troubled students. Virginia law now requires state universities to do so, but most states—including California—do not.
Raleigh, who is past president of the American College Counseling Association, says she doesn’t believe in mandating parental notification. However, when students have a psychological crisis at St. Mary’s, she says, “90 percent of the time, we involve the parents and it’s great.”
Given that policies regarding parental notification vary wildly from college to college, most parents remain unaware of how their child’s school would handle a mental health crisis until one occurs. Jha believes that even if the laws aren’t changed, parents need to lobby universities for a standardized system of notification when a student is in danger. College students, she says, are “in a semi-independent state where courts are giving them full freedom as full adults, yet their brains are not fully adult; neither are their situations fully adult. They’re at school—they have no experience of the world.”
In April 2011, Margaret received a sympathetic phone call from an investigator at the California Board of Psychology. He told her that although he personally found Caltech’s actions regarding Brian “morally repugnant,” the psychiatrists assigned to the case had “scoured California law” and could find no reason to indict the school.
That September, a California judge dismissed the Gos’ suit in summary judgment, stating that Caltech had “no duty of care” toward its adult students.
Although Caltech did not respond to numerous requests for comment, there are signs that changes have occurred there since Brian’s death. In 2011, a Caltech mental health task force recommended hiring more staff and instituting late-night “student hours” for counseling services, adding more residence advisers, and increasing outreach to parents. In 2012, a chapter of Active Minds, a student-run mental health organization, was established on campus.
Margaret says that the news of Active Minds at Caltech brought “tears of joy.”
The Gos are appealing the dismissal of their lawsuit. If the case goes to trial, Margaret says, more parents will know about it, “and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Margaret believes that colleges’ policy of treating students as adults must take into account that the students are still their parents’ children: “I didn’t care to know what grades Brian got, and I never once contacted a professor about an issue he was having,” she says. “But I did care to know that he wanted to die and acted on that wish enough to climb up to the roof of one of their buildings. If they had called me, I would not have sued.
“Ninety to 95 percent of people who attempt suicide go on to lead normal lives. Is it too much to ask to allow me to try to save my child’s life?”
Kathleen Wheaton is a frequent contributor to the magazine and lives in Bethesda.