Indiana University student's suicide due to hydrogen sulfide (H2S)

Down on the left sidebar you'll see a little gizmo for SiteMeter, a service that measures one's blog traffic and gives all sorts of tidbits about how readers got to the blog and a very general idea of where they are coming from. Most bloggers pay attention to the numbers of visitors but I have always been more interested in how readers get here and what posts they are reading.

Willoughby IU H2S suicide.jpgOne value of SiteMeter is to keep tabs on search terms that bring people here to learn of breaking stories. So, when I saw a bunch of hits starting yesterday with search terms like "hydrogen sulfide," I feared the worst: that another young person had committed suicide by mixing household chemicals to release the toxic and potentially fatal gas and search engines were driving traffic to one of my earlier hydrogen sulfide posts.

Indeed, this story is more heartbreaking than usual (not that any suicide isn't) because it was a highly-promising young man who was an academic standout in the sciences and a musician:

Gregory Willoughby was an academic standout at Warren Central before he began his study at IU. This community as well as the Bloomington campus is shocked to hear of his death as police continue to search for answers.

A junior at Indiana University, Gregory Willoughby was an accomplished academic and musician. A biochemistry major with minors in mathematics and psychology, Willoughby was a chemistry tutor who played the cello. [According to the IU student newspaper, Willoughby was co-principal chair in the All-Campus Orchestra in spring 2008.]

In 2007 he was named a Wells Scholar, one of the most competitive and prestigious awards offered at an American university.

The young man was found in his closet with a bucket of liquid, a sign on the door reading, "Warning H2S," a common feature of recent cases of suicide by this method. As in this other case we wrote about, the victims seem to care more about the safety and welfare of others than that of themselves.

The account from the Indiana Daily Student leads me to believe that Mr. Willoughby lacked a support network. The medical examiner estimates that young man was dead for seven to ten days. Caitlin Johnston writes that few people in the Willkie dormitory actually know one another and it is described as "a closed off community for independent people." So even if Willoughby had been experiencing suicidal thoughts that might have been evident in his behavior or language, it doesn't seem that anyone would have known.

However, he is reported to have been a research assistant in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Beyond no one there recognizing any warning signs, I'm surprised that his absence was not noted by anyone in the laboratory. Or by any of his professors in class.

But then again, suicidal signs are not always evident. Early in my career, a top student in my pharmacology class committed suicide with sedatives over a weekend. She had sat in the front row, right in front of the lectern, and her best friend said she had been to the opera with her the very night she overdosed without any indication that she was distraught.

I have yet to find any comments in any news stories to date that come from any friends or family. [Since writing this, a great many friends, family, lab co-workers, and fellow students have come forward to comment below and in subsequent coverage by the Indiana Daily Student. According to commenters below, reporters (with the exception of Caitlin Johnston at the student paper) were less than sensitive in seeking background information.]

This case makes me very, very sad.

Addendum April 15th: You will see in the comments below the outpouring of love for Gregory from people who knew him. One noted specifically that they chose not to respond to interview requests. I am grateful to those of you who have taken the time to express your sentiments and share your stories. You have my personal condolences on the tragic loss of this fine young man who you know and love.


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Never thought of a site meter as being something that could make your heart skip a beat.

A couple years ago, a student was abducted from our campus and murdered. So our radar was up.

Then last year I had a student worker who disappeared. Her roommate didn't know where she was and was very worried too. We mobilized every resource we could think of and wouldn't let up until we found her - in the psych wing of the local hospital. She had attempted suicide and was there for observation.

The police told us; they usually don't release that kind of information to non-family members (she had requested her mother not be told where she was too) but we were making so much noise that telling us was the only way to shut us up.

I was a friend of Gregory's. The time it took for his body to be found is the most shocking part of all of this, but it is not so unusual to be out of touch in times of high pressure from school. I interacted with him days before he took his life, and there were no signs that stood out. He was a quiet person and it does not surprise me that he didn't reach out for help. We are all still dealing with the shock of this and helping each other through. Comments on the web are not a first means for this. He was a very warm and intelligent person and truly is missed.

Gregory has a very huge support system. His Family is very close and a very supportive Family and has been for years. Unfortunately, we just never know what one is really going through. He must of felt so much pain that he saw no other way out. If any of his Family or Friends knew of this, he would still be here today. I'm sure of it. It is so important for people to reach out. Gregory had so much going for him. He was a wonderful person and I pray for Family and Friends. He will be missed. RIP.

Gregory was a very private person and his friends, myself included, thought that was the way he liked it. I do know that his lab research involved a lot of data processing and so there were stretches of time where he did all that from home. His absence from lab probably wasn't that unusual. As for classes, I am also a biochem major and our classes are rather large (50-60 people) so it's not always easy to notice when someone isn't there. We all wish we would have seen the signs but I have to think that he wanted to keep it quiet, he obviously spent a lot of time and effort planning this. If at any time he had acted like he had a problem, I would have tried to help and I know many of his friends feel the same way. I am still in shock that he could have felt this way and hidden it so completely that no one ever suspected. I guess you never really know someone...RIP Gregory, I miss you.

While I am somewhat glad to see that the initial purpose of your article was to draw attention to the incredible and often overlooked tragedy that is suicide among young people, especially when it is incurred by someone as intelligent, kind, and promising as Gregory, I am very disappointed by your concluding statements. I can see from several of the comments above me that I am not alone in my sentiments. How DARE you sink to such an insensitive level of calling into question Gregory's friends, teachers and mentors and say that there was "no one there recognizing any warning signs" and "that his absence was not noted by anyone in the laboratory...or by any of his professors in class." Who are you, anyway? Did you know Gregory? No, clearly you did not, because if you did, you would know that he would be the first to reprimand you for speaking about his friends and family in that manner. Despite the outpouring of responses above me attesting to Gregory's character, how well-liked he was, and how highly he was respected (even to the point that people did not question his desire for privacy), you have more or less put his friends and family on the defensive where they feel as though they have to explain themselves to some unimportant, insignificant person like yourself. The people in Gregory's life are already going through enough right now. More importantly, the feelings of his friends and colleagues par in comparison to what his family is experiencing.

And for the record, if you are truly just dying to know why you've yet to "find any new stories to date that come from any friends or family"...I have two things to say you. 1.) Look at the comments above, clearly he was not lacking people who cared deeply about him. 2). I spent all day kicking insensitive pricks that sound just like you out of my lab today, and I smiled every time I declined to comment and closed the door in your face because I knew Gregory was watching the whole thing and laughing his ass off.

What a horrible tragedy. Thanks for bringing it to our attention Abel.

CNI, I am sorry for your pain. I doubt very much that AP meant to imply some sort of fault on the part of friends and family. I read it more as an observation that often times the so-called "signs" may not really exist.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Deeply regretful that i havent contacted him lately, but Greg was known to be one who coped well working solo if he had to and did well working in a group. We both graduated from Warren Central 2007 as Top 10 scholars. We were the only two African Americans on the Top ten. I believe he placed 6th and i 8th. the previous summer and the one after we both did research in a research lab. He worked for the cancer research center and i for Project SEED IUPUI program. My brother and I gave him a ride to work daily and we shared alot about our goals and education pursuits. Last i saw him was last semester when he came down to IUPUI for a conference meeting. He seemed to have it made and my lack of constant contact was probable soothed by the thought that he would be the one with less issues in life and i didnt want to disturb his rigorous studying. Perhaps those were all false notions... I knew Greg to appear happy constantly, this news report baffles me greatly that im convinced there's more to this than just a mere suicide...

By Cornelius (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

TL, D.L., CNI, and Cornelius - words cannot adequately express how sorry I am for your loss and I am very grateful that you have come here to share your sentiments and remembrances of Gregory. Indeed, my primary intent was to honor this amazingly promising young gentleman, draw attention to the tragedy this is, and express my own sadness that it seems there may have been nothing one could have done to prevent this. As T.L. and Cornelius point out relative to the comment of my colleague, DrugMonkey, it does indeed seem that Gregory was otherwise happy on the exterior, very similar to my own student who took her life.

CNI, in particular, I certainly understand your anger. But my hope is that you may understand that I had no other sources to turn to that might have given family and friends a voice. In fact, we should ask why the press - your local TV, newspapers, and the student daily - did not get input from any people who truly knew Gregory. It only took me a 45 minutes of writing and researching this post and a few hours to draw out comments from people who know Gregory - I thank each of you for honoring you friend this way.

Perhaps then, CNI, you can understand that if you were declining comment all day, there is no other way for people like me to know what was felt by people close to him. I understand your anger and unwillingness to comment to reporters - I'd probably respond to them the same way if the same thing was happening to me - and I send you my deepest condolences. But in no way did I intend to be insensitive and I apologize that my words were taken that way. I will be sure to add an addendum to the above story regarding the outpouring of remembrances that are coming here.

Cornelius, don't beat yourself up that you didn't keep in touch with Gregory sooner. I understand because the same thing happened to me with an old classmate who died in the World Trade Center attacks - I had several opportunities to catch up with him in the months before the tragedy but the hustle and bustle of life got in the way and I kept putting it off. Sadly, we always think we can catch up next time, next week, etc.

People like you and Gregory are the future of science and we so badly need role models like you (I'm a cancer researcher at a HBCU and greater than 70% of our students are women) - keep up with your studies and lab work and please let me know if I can ever be of help to you (my e-mail address is in the "Contact" button up on the masthead.) - I'm serious. Please accept my sympathy on the loss of your friend and colleague.

My heart goes out to this young mans family and friends. The question "Where were his family or friends?" is often asked in these situations. In cases of mental illness and/or suspected suicidal situations the family or friends may indeed know that there is something going on with their loved one, but sadly there is little they can do. You cannot force an adult to go for treatment and proving that they are exhibiting behavior that is harmful to themselves or others can be a difficult legal process. Please do not add to their pain by assuming that they did not care...

Please let me be clear to current and future commenters: in no way did I intend to blame friends, fellow students, co-workers, or family in not caring about Mr. Willoughby. In fact, I noted that it is often very difficult to know if someone is suicidal, including the example of my own student.

My only question of others was how a young man so involved in the university could not be noticed missing for seven to ten days. That's all.


Whether intended to be insensitive or not, your comment was unacceptable. In the lab, we did notice that Gregory's absence. But he did a lot of work from home, so going off the map was not responding to an email. Overall, he was a very quiet person and at the end of the semester it isn't unusual for someone to have just gotten extremely busy. We are already shocked enough and I take extreme offense to your comment.

Also, anyone declining to comment is in NO way your ticket or excuse to write poorly of people or to assume anything. You chose to do that. You have autonomy. Please do not place your actions onto us.

B, again, I apologize that my speculative comments led you to take extreme offense. I wish you comfort and healing in the wake of this tragedy.

For those interested in learning more about Gregory and how widely he was admired at IU, Caitlin Johnston has put up a new article with interviews at the Indiana Daily Student.

It is perfectly reasonable to discuss, dissect, and analyze the situation. The people closest to this may (accent may), in the long run, be the best to add context, but in the short term are likely the least helpful to a discussion. I'm willing to stipulate that he was a fine young man to get that off the table. It doesn't necessarily have relevance to the topic.

RE: The increase in suicides with this technique... What would be a typical level of distress during the act? Why is this method gaining traction/notoriety? I would think that a primary aim of suicides would be minimal suffering during the time of act. Is this a step in that direction? Is there an intellectual connection being made with what is, for most, a fairly sophisticated method of choice? Suicide was (is?) the second most common cause of death for college students, and a suicide occurs approximately every fifteen minutes in the USA, 24/7/365.

AP, I appreciate your addendum. I would also like to explain my previous comment further, without allowing anger to permeate this response, so that you and others can see things from our perspective. We were asked not to make any official statements on behalf of our lab or on behalf of the university. All reporters seeking such statements were directed to an IU spokesperson capable of dealing with requests of that magnitude. We were not told that we could not speak about Gregory on our own behalf. For those who chose not to, which were all the members of the lab, we did so out of respect for his memory and his family's privacy. However, our decisions not to speak to the media were made all the more easier by the tactlessness and ineptitude exhibited by the "local" reporters who did show up to our lab, 3 of whom did not bother knocking, introducing themselves, or offering condolences before launching into their rehearsed speeches about how they "just wanted to get to know the dead kid." One of them asked if she was in the right place, "Is this the lab where the guy who killed himself worked?" This was within a half hour of the police releasing Gregory's identity. Many of us had just found out the sad news minutes earlier, and yet this girl had the audacity to ask that question to a room full of visibly upset people. She then continued to hassle us for comments after we politely told her that her timing and the content of questions were inappropriate. If these were the same reporters who contacted other acquaintances of Gregory on the same day or even within the same hour of the police releasing his name, perhaps you can begin to understand why no one spoke to them, and perhaps this explains the initial lack of comments from his friends and family. Once again, thank you for the addendum and thank you for posting the link to an article written by one the only respectful reporters I actually encountered. It is an article that is worthy of the Gregory we knew.

I also knew Gregory and can attest to the tremendous quality of his character. AP, instead of the addendum, I would recommend simply editing the portion of the post that so many of Gregory's friends, family, and coworkers find offensive.

I agree with Theophrastus. I think the important point here is that there were no signs and that a well-connected and well-loved individual can be going through this much turmoil without those around them seeing it. This is often the case in suicide stories and makes it that much more tragic. I am very sorry for the loss experienced by the friends and family of Mr. Willoughby and have no doubt that they could not have stopped this, but I also think this part of the story is important for others to see.

I live in Willkie South and though I didn't know Gregory Willoughby personally, I have personal experience with suicide. I spent some time in the active Army and a buddy ended his life while on deployment. Nobody expected it. I mean, absolutely nobody expected this guy to kill himself. He was married, had two kids, and was (by all appearances) very much stable. Not to be cold, but these things do happen. The stereotypically suicidal person is obviously distraught, has family problems, isn't stable, leaves a suicide note, etc. A lot of the time, it just doesn't work that way. Sometimes you just can't get someone's psychology 100% accurate; that's why psychology isn't a science.

@Abel, don't apologize to B. You have no reason to do such a thing. Your comments were not heinous in any way. And you raise a perfectly valid point - why didn't anyone notice this kid had went missing? Why didn't they notice anything unusual? I know I said some suicide simply don't show any previous signs of problems, but after reading some other article about Gregory Willoughby, I find it really hard to believe hardly anyone showed more concern for the kid. I mean, he had went missing for *more than* a week.

I just want to say that nearly every person I have spoken to (even my incredibly shy and loner-type roommate) say they would have been found in 24 hours or less. Why is it that NO ONE noticed his absence? I receive, on average, 10 emails a day, and have to respond to at least 5 of them. Why didn't anyone notice? Why didn't family notice? If a family is close knit, I would expect them to be in contact at least twice a week, even if it was just a quick "Hello! Love you guys!" This is so unusual for someone with apparently so many friends! If one of my friends doesn't hear from me for 24 hours, she texts to make sure all is well...what on Earth?

By WillkieResident (not verified) on 16 Apr 2010 #permalink

I am so sorry for this tragic loss. As an IU mom of a former Wilke resident, I was concerned about the isolated nature of the dormitory. But that aside, the bottom line is it happened and we all wish that it hadn't. My heartfelt condolences and prayers for Gregory's family and friends. Know that he loved you. It wasn't your fault.

A week later, my heart still aches for the loss of another young, gifted college student this school year. I have worked with exceptional young men and women for over 30 years and I can attest that as complex are their many gifts, so are their emotions,their problems, and their view of themselves within their world. Their own brilliance self-isolates them; as 'normal' as they may appear on the outside, they often feel achingly different from everyone else on the inside without a way to articulate it.

I still am having a difficult time accepting this as a suicide. Has anyone positively i.d.'d the handwriting on the note taped to the closet door as his?

By susan kitterman (not verified) on 19 Apr 2010 #permalink

As a longtime member of the IU community, but with no personal knowledge of this wonderful student, I have a different perspective which may or may not be relevant for this tragedy but I imagine it does. IU has many students in need of counseling with almost no place to go. The counseling services are limited and the psychiatrists and therapists are often dismissive of student issues. The disability office has 4 employees for a student body of 40,000. It is estimated that in any place in America there will be 8% of the population with mild disability issues, how can this be enough staff? There is no building where students can go to take tests in isolation, no educational services or group therapy on an ongoing basis. IU has not put nearly enough resources into providing good services for students in this area. But the folks who should be looking after students are also remiss. How could it possibly take over 5 days to find a student? How could it possibly not have been evident that this student was that depressed?
While focusing on sexuality issues on campus is a good thing, certainly the campus could retain outstanding educators to work with staff to improve the mental health of all students on campus. I don't know what it will take to get IU to see its frailties, but let us hope and pray it does.

Sadly, JGH, everything you say is true for most large state university campuses. In fact, staffing of these critical services is only getting worse, not better, given state financial pressures and the disproportionate burden of cuts borne by the higher education system. Something has to change.

AP, I dont think you need to apologize for what you wrote. Fact of the matter os, atleast you wrote soemthign about him, which allowed people like me who never got the opportunity to know Gregory, to know about this bright young fellow. It gives us the opportunity to try and reach out to everyone and let everyone know we care, whether they seem to want to hear it or not.
I think the comments against you are just guilt turning to anger that needs to be let out anywhere. I too had a friend who committed suicide two years back and wished i could have done something more. That too, was let out in anger.