Learning to Face Their Challenges Together

A bench on the Duke campus in memory of Chris "Stewie" Sanders.

A bench on the Duke campus in memory of Chris “Stewie” Sanders.

By Merritt Onsa

On April 3, 2007, tragedy struck the Gamma Chapter at Duke University. Suddenly, a brother was gone. Chris ‘Stewie’ Sanders took his life, and his death shook the chapter to its core. Stewie’s decision surprised everyone including his girlfriend, his parents, and the men who called him their brother.

An incredibly popular and well-liked guy, Stewie never gave any signs that he was depressed or considering taking his life. He was an accomplished diver on the Duke men’s swimming team, active in his Sigma Nu chapter—serving as Marshal at the time of his death—and elsewhere in leadership roles on campus.

Brothers remember his kindness and enthusiasm for Sigma Nu. “He was one of those guys with the gravitas to pull you one way or another,” says former Commander Teddy Jones about meeting Stewie during rush. Doug Lawson, who was Stewie’s roommate and close friend at the time of his death, says, “You couldn’t ask for a better friend or a better brother.”

Stewie was one of the reasons Doug wanted to join Sigma Nu in the first place. “He made me feel really welcome. He was always looking for ways to make sure you were doing well,” he says.

As devastating as Stewie’s death was for the chapter, their loss cut even deeper as the brothers wondered how they could have had no inkling about his later-discovered mental health issues.

Doug recalls feeling deeply impacted by the loss for a long time. “It was hard to be in a good mood. I thought, ‘How can I really enjoy anything when Stewie was going through so much pain and we didn’t even know about it.’”

However, in the midst of tragedy, the brothers bonded together in their grief, first, to support one another and, later, to try to figure out what they could have done differently.

Deciding to Live Differently

Several months after Stewie’s death, brothers began discussing how they might honor his memory and hopefully prevent something like this from happening again. Dave Mainella, alumni advisor, gathered a group to talk it out, including the Commander (Teddy Jones), former Commander (Michael McHugh), and Dr. Gary Glass, from Duke’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Dr. Glass had been Duke’s counselor on duty in the days immediately following Stewie’s death.

The first challenge they identified was the self-described “alpha-male” culture of the chapter. Teddy describes it this way: “Alpha males don’t need help with things; they don’t need to talk to a therapist because of image problems, or because they feel fat or depressed, or worry that they are bordering on alcoholism, or aren’t as good as their peers, or because they can’t keep up with social and academic expectations set for them.”

But that culture wasn’t unique to Sigma Nu. Duke’s current Director of Fraternity & Sorority Life, Clarybel Peguero, says it’s prevalent across campus. “There’s a strong sense of perfectionism that exists in the community—a belief that you can work hard and party hard and that the stress is not getting to you. You don’t show it; you work through it by partying. The students do both at such extremes,” she says.

In addition, competition at Duke is thick. Students strive for the best internships, top spots in high-ranking graduate schools, or high-paying jobs after college. “There tends to be an emphasis placed on succeeding in every facet of your life. Everyone is pushing to succeed, and it’s frowned upon to admit defeat, that you want to stay in tonight, or that you are burned out,” says Kraig Knas, who was a freshman in the chapter at the time of Stewie’s death.

At the time, Teddy says he believes Sigma Nu didn’t have the culture in place to empower someone like Stewie to seek the help he needed. “There was this façade that people would put on that [I believe] contributed to their reluctance to deal with problems if they had them, whether they were image problems or mental health problems, like Stewie dealt with,” he says.

Chris "Stewie" Sanders' death shook the chapter to its core.

Chris “Stewie” Sanders’ death shook the chapter to its core.

Learning to Face Their Challenges

Gamma Chapter’s loss provided the motivation the brothers needed to begin to shift the culture and attitudes in the chapter. They started by learning how to deal with grief. Instead of avoiding difficult topics, brothers began to share their feelings with one another; and several went to CAPS to talk things out.

They implemented additional brotherhood building activities and sessions throughout the LEAD Program to help members learn to open up more. “The tools in the LEAD toolbox really helped continue the conversation,” says Dave.

To reinforce opportunities for more vulnerable conversations amongst the brothers, they also implemented a peer coaching program—modeled after a session Dave led at College of Chapters. It’s still a part of chapter life today, giving brothers an outlet to talk about real issues instead of pretending everything is okay or talking about superficial topics.

Plus, that initial meeting with Dave and Dr. Glass inspired a larger movement called Face Your Challenges (FYC)—a campaign to help college students deal with life challenges. The taglines they came up with for the program were a direct result of those early conversations.

Today, FYC’s marketing materials include statements like, “Let yourself be who you actually are,” and “It’s okay to admit that you don’t have all the answers,” and “One phrase can change your life, if you let it: ‘I need to talk.’” That kind of dialogue was what Gamma brothers hoped would permeate their chapter.

“We wanted FYC to bring awareness of everyone else’s feelings and how certain people handle stress in different ways. We wanted all the guys to know that in the darkest hour of the day that their best friends were there to help them out and stand for them,” says Kraig.

In addition, the brothers created an FYC website to serve as a hub of resources for people outside of Sigma Nu. There they posted “Stewie Stories” written by a few members shortly after Stewie’s death. A group of brothers also began visiting the other campus fraternities to share those stories, talk about their experience, and suggest students seek help if they or a brother are struggling.

Teddy recounts visiting other fraternities with the FYC program while he was still at Duke. “I would talk about how, if someone were there or we’d had programming or an organizational attitude in place that made it easier for someone like Stewie to seek help, his death might have been prevented,” he says.

One time, a friend approached Teddy after his talk and admitted to feeling depressed. As a result of what Teddy shared, this friend said he’d try to set up a meeting with Dr. Glass the next day. “It was one of those experiences that made everything worth it,” Teddy says.

Since her arrival at Duke in 2008, Clarybel says she’s seen the impact of these efforts on the chapter. “While Sigma Nu understood their social capital before, they didn’t know how to use it for good. Today they are the highest functioning fraternity in every aspect. They have become an overall great organization. I have seen their connectivity become more and more strengthened,” she says.

Clarybel confirms a rise in mental health issues on college campuses in the last twenty years and says men in particular tend to have more difficulty seeking help. “But when a group like Sigma Nu says, ‘Hey, it’s okay to go to CAPS. It’s okay to talk about how hard this is.’ I think it really sets a tone for people to say, ‘If they went, I’m going to go too,’” she explains.

A poster the chapter created to promote the Face Your Challenges program.

A poster the chapter created to promote the Face Your Challenges program.

What Stewie Taught Us

After Stewie’s death, Doug went on to study psychology and then the law, both of which afforded him a growing base of knowledge about mental health issues. Teddy went to medical school where he gained an understanding of psychological issues like bipolar disorder. Personal experience and their educational pursuits have inspired both Doug and Teddy to fight against the stigma attached to mental health issues.

“It makes no sense that people treat disorders of the mind completely different from disorders of the body. Both of them need to be addressed as serious issues. If you broke your ankle, of course you’d go to the doctor. If you have a chemical imbalance in your brain, of course you’d go to the doctor. It makes no logical sense that there would be a stigma for one and not the other,” says Doug.

Jack Riker, who served as Commander in 2012-2013, says if there was one piece of advice he would offer to Sigma Nu brothers it would be to open up. “Remember that people are people, and people aren’t perfect. It’s tough to talk about what you’re struggling with, but it’s also kind of unhealthy not to. Don’t be afraid to speak out. Once I open up to someone, I’m amazed at how much easier it is for the other person to reach out. It just takes one person to break the ice first,” he says.

While it was born out of great pain, the implementation of FYC and the change in culture has been extremely positive for the chapter. “Stewie’s death was incomprehensible. That’s why I think FYC is such a great initiative. If there’d been any sign, or he had spoken up at all, or even if we were more aware of what to look for when someone is struggling with mental health issues, something could’ve been done,” says Doug.

As chapter advisor, Dave has had the benefit of watching the chapter morph over time. “I’ve seen a new level of comfort, especially in the seniors who graduated in 2013 and 2014. They are willing to share and ask for support, and they are able to talk about their challenges in a completely different way than what I saw five or six years earlier.”

He believes other Sigma Nu chapters can learn from Gamma’s experience. “This program has allowed brothers to feel comfortable saying they have an issue and that they need some help. I hope other chapters will consider bringing it to their campus because I think it is very valuable for the fraternal movement as a whole,” Dave explains.

The Legacy Lives On

Now that seven years have passed since Stewie’s death, all the brothers who knew him have long since graduated, but the culture established by those deeply affected by this loss still lingers. And his legacy lives on in FYC.

Every year, during rush, the brothers make a formal presentation about FYC. Then, on the anniversary of Stewie’s death in April, they hold a ceremony in his memory. The brothers read Stewie Stories and the newest initiates and candidates get a better glimpse of the wake-up call that shaped their brotherhood.

He may be gone, but Stewie’s memory is still attracting new brothers. Jack says it was the openness of the members to talk about their struggles that drew him to Sigma Nu. “It made me feel comfortable to know that everyone is cognizant of the fact that people need to get their feelings out,” he says.

The effort to promote awareness, beyond the walls of Gamma Chapter, continues. Over the last three years, they co-sponsored a Break The Silence benefit concert with To Write Love on Her Arms, a national nonprofit dedicated to hope and help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. Fifty-perfect of the concert’s proceeds are invested in the local community for mental health awareness, education, and care.

In addition, at least one other Sigma Nu chapter has expressed interest in the Face Your Challenges program. Jack was approached at College of Chapters by a Commander whose chapter was dealing with a similar incident. With the assistance of Gamma Chapter, the Delta Phi Chapter is launching a Face Your Challenges program at the University of Maryland.

While he wouldn’t wish it on any chapter, Dave describes the experience of going through this tragedy, helping the chapter learn from it, and coming out on the other side as incredibly powerful and extremely impactful for the brotherhood. “Stewie has been gone for a while now, but I have to think that his parents would get some comfort by knowing what has transpired since we lost him,” he says.

Currently, Gamma Chapter is working to get FYC registered as an official student organization in an effort to impact the greater Duke community with mental health awareness programming.

One thought on “Learning to Face Their Challenges Together

  1. Christian says:

    I am glad to see good things coming out of such a tragic situation. As a person who has lived with bipolar disorder most of my life, I know how difficult the stress of college can be on somebody with untreated mental illness. I was one of the lucky ones; my brothers up at Lambda Upsilon were always there for me in my most difficult times – even if they (or I for that matter) didn’t even really know what was going on. I am eternally grateful to my brothers for helping me through some of the darkest times in my life. I would love to see other chapters doing similar things as Gamma chapter. It is an important subject that can’t be ignored. Keep up the good work, Gamma!

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