Two months ago, Justin Weimer shot himself in downtown Auburn; his parents hope his death is not in vain, and that it may shed more light on mental illness and suicide.
The last time Scott Weimer saw his son, Justin, everything seemed fine.
They played catch and, over lunch at Chick-Fil-A, Justin discussed changing his major from marketing to human development and family studies.
He wanted to be a counselor.
But a week later, while sitting in his car at the intersection outside Live Oaks, Justin put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was transported to Columbus Midtown Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 4:29 a.m.
Justin, 22, became the fifth Auburn student to commit suicide in 2015.
“I don’t know anyone who had more faith than Justin,” Scott said through tears during an interview. “I don’t know anyone who loved life more than him.”
Justin’s struggle with mental illness began around 18 months ago, his parents believe.
The Justin his parents describe was a charismatic and friendly athlete. He loved to dance, sometimes without music. He was a world traveler and spent five months in Kenya after he graduated from high school. Scott and Cynthia Weimer said he experienced life fully. While he was in Africa, Justin completely immersed himself in the culture. His Kenyan family gave him their name: Mwangi.
An African choir performed at his memorial service.
Most of all, his parents agree, Justin was genuine. He was a devout Christian who talked about God to anyone who would listen. But he truly wanted to connect to people regardless of their religious beliefs.
Justin was born with a rare, deep sense of empathy, Scott said.
“If you met Justin for the first time, chances are you would dance together,” Scott said. “And you’d probably laugh a lot, but you’d probably also talk about some of the deepest subjects - your purpose in life, maybe God. But he wasn’t pushy. He wanted to get to know you as a human being.”
Cynthia said her son’s “situational” depression set off something chemical inside of him. Depression runs on her side of the family.
“Of our three kids, Justin seems to have gotten this (genetic) predisposition,” Cynthia said.
Justin was under a doctor’s care in Atlanta, his hometown, and he was prescribed medication he knew was meant to be taken daily. He listened to his doctors and he knew how serious his condition was, but deep down, Scott suspects, he wanted to fight through his depression. With enough prayer and faith in God, he thought he could take care of it on his own.
Scott is the senior pastor at North Avenue Presbyterian Church, a historic Atlanta church. He said there’s a “strong faith perspective” in Auburn. So strong that it’s “almost like a Christian campus.”
He thinks that atmosphere is mostly a good thing, but with it there is sometimes a stigma regarding psychological issues.
“There’s this sense that, if you had enough faith, you wouldn’t have these struggles,” Scott said. “People ask themselves, ‘Why would you be depressed if you have faith?’”
He told his son that depression is an illness just like any other physical ailment.
“If you have cancer, you pray that God will heal you, and sometimes He will,” Scott said. “But in most cases, part of that healing comes from medicine.”
Justin listened to him, Scott said. But he doesn’t know how seriously he took his advice. Scott believed him when Justin said he was taking his pills and regularly going to counseling sessions. But because of doctor-patient confidentiality, he’ll never know for sure.
Scott returned to work a little more than a month after the tragedy. He spent the following weeks researching the issues that led to his son’s death. He has particularly identified with a Wall Street Journal article, “More Help for College Men with Depression and Anxiety.” He thinks the stigma that surrounds mental illness is something that affects young men in particular.
“A guy doesn’t want to be identified as ‘that guy’ who has a mental health issue,” Scott said.
Justin had recently expressed interest in establishing a meeting place for people with mental health issues, according to his parents. He wanted to create an environment where students could feel comfortable talking about their feelings and problems. No matter how welcoming a counselor’s office may be, he thought it would be easier for people, specifically men, to open up in a more casual setting.
In 2014, Justin wrote a blog post that he titled, “New Beginnings,” that has been shared a number of times since his death. In it, he expressed a deep understanding of mental illness. But he also admitted deep-rooted fears about abandonment and unworthiness. He was terrified people would judge him if he acknowledged his darkest thoughts.
“Perhaps the greatest fear of all is that if I expose the impostor and lay bare my true self, I will be abandoned by the ones I love and those who love me,” Justin wrote.
These aren’t uncommon feelings, said Student Counseling Services Director Doug Hankes.
Many people think about committing suicide at some point in their lives, Hankes said, but not everyone feels comfortable talking about it.
The Student Government Association initiated a Mental Health Task Force in August.
The force, comprised of students, faculty and administrators, is designed to assess the long-term mental health needs of the student body. The group is scheduled to report its findings next month.
One suggestion keeps coming up during focus groups, Hankes said.
“We need to have a more open discussion, campus-wide, about mental health,” Hankes said. “Suicide specifically.”
When a student commits suicide, especially in a public place, it tends to generate a strong reaction from the community. Friends and witnesses might feel any number of emotions, from sadness to shock to numbness. That’s OK, Hankes said. Student counselors only start to worry a month or two down the line if a sense of normalcy hasn’t returned.
“Some people are going to feel very emotional, and some people will feel very numb,” Hankes said. “That’s your reaction, and that’s fine.”
Four or five years ago, statistics showed Auburn had a more mentally healthy student body than most universities across the country. For reasons he can’t explain, Hankes said, that data has gradually changed.
“Now, we look exactly like the rest of the country,” Hankes said.
At the end of the 2015 spring semester, there were approximately 300 students on the waiting list at Student Counseling Services. A university of Auburn’s size should employ 20-25 full-time counselors, according to the International Association of Counseling Services. Auburn currently employs 11.
Walker Byrd, SGA president, admitted the University doesn’t have the resources to deal with the increase in students who are seeking help. He said it’s nobody’s fault, however, and the University is doing everything it can to bring its counseling services up to speed.
Byrd said he believes open discussion is crucial to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. Students need to know they aren’t alone, he said.
“Students are more likely than ever to seek help for their problems,” Byrd said. “We need to normalize that.”
Justin’s parents said they’re proud of the steps the University is taking to promote mental health among its students.
Cynthia believes her son would be proud, too.
“That’s something that was dear to Justin’s heart,” Cynthia said. “He deeply wanted to erase the stigma of depression and to talk about it openly.”