By Robin Gracia
Candles flickered as the sun set on Oct. 29 at California State University, Bakersfield as students, staff and community members gathered in front of the Student Union in remembrance of those who have died from suicide.
The candle lighting event, which was held by the CSUB Counseling Center, coincided with the death of 19-year-old Los Ortiz, a Kappa Sigma fraternity member and CSUB student, who died of suicide on Oct. 27 according to the Kern County Coroner’s Office.
The Greek community came out in large numbers to support their friends and fellow students as they dealt with the devastating news and remembered Ortiz together.
Suicide education and prevention were all stressed to the individuals attending the memorial.
According to Ellen Eggert, a suicide prevention educator with Kern County Mental Health, asking questions and speaking up can literally save a life.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students,” said Eggert, “and we have to become suicide aware. Suicide is the most preventable cause of death that there is.”
Eggert described the feeling of helplessness that can accompany an unexpected loss. Gathering together to communicate feelings of anger, guilt, resentment and sadness can aid people on the road to recovery.
The candle lighting event served as that aid for many people struggling to make sense of the death of Ortiz.
“This is the first time we have presented an opportunity for people to gather around the issue of suicide, loss and grief,” said
CSUB Counseling Center coordinator Janet Millar. “We host QPR, which is Question, Persuade and Refer, which is a training to learn to ask the questions that are necessary of people who are thinking of doing harm, and giving people resources that can help.”
Students took turns addressing the crowd regarding their favorite memories of Ortiz.
“We called him ‘Pledge Bruno Mars,’ because, you know, he kinda looked like Bruno Mars,” said Gerardo Bobadilla, a 23-year-old history and criminal justice major and current president of Kappa Sigma.
Bobadilla’s comment sent a wave of laughter into a crying and somber crowd, which made people smile and open up about their personal experiences with Ortiz.
“Los was always the nicest guy to be around,” said Mary Guenette, an 18-year-old communications major. “He’d always make you smile and he was the epitome of a gentleman.”
Individuals spoke out one-by-one about their personal struggles with depression, self-harm, abusive relationships and being survivors of suicidal thoughts and attempts. Each person was met with overwhelming support, a hug from someone who stood close by, and nods of understanding.
CSUB Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Thomas Wallace, urged students and faculty in attendance to take the time to express feelings of love and care to family and friends – treat those who are dear as if they are a gift rather than a given.
“I’m going to ask you all to reach out and touch someone’s hand, so we can make this world a better place,” said Wallace.
Wallace’s prompt spurred the crowd into action. People began to form a chain of hands, backing up from the candlelight to accommodate the expanding circle. A Kappa Sigma member placed a candle in the center of the heart for Ortiz.
Both Eric Lord and Michael Harville of the CSUB Counseling Center urged any individuals who are overwhelmed, grief-stricken, depressed or anxious to come and speak to a professional about their thoughts and feelings. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, nor is it an indicator of instability. Addressing one’s feelings is normal, healthy, and necessary.
Regarding Ortiz, Bobadilla said, “He was a great friend. He was a great gentleman. He was a Greek member here at CSUB. He was a Roadrunner. But above all else, he was our brother.”