The parents of late University of Maine student Timothy James “TJ” Dodge Jr. arrived at the Old Town police station on Monday to find out more information about their son’s death last Tuesday. His parents, Pam and Tim Dodge of Rockland, sat with two of TJ’s closest friends in a bland, white room with a table, chairs and a bookshelf.
“I would like to have as much as possible on this, because I would really like to know what happened in his last 2 or 3 minutes,” Pam Dodge told Detective Tom Adams. “This is all new to me.”
Adams retreated to a back office for the data, then returned to the room with his laptop and a disc of photos he took at the scene. The Maine Campus was allowed access to the meeting by the family.
The detective told the family that accident reconstruction experts believe TJ, a sophomore psychology student, intentionally crashed his car at a high speed early in the morning last Tuesday. Police have said he was killed instantly.
Among photos TJ’s parents saw was one of a note TJ left in the car, currently under review by the state medical examiner.
“I don’t know if it helps, but when I went to homicide school they talked about suicide and what’s going on in people’s mind when they’re to a point where they’re going to take their own life, and it’s something we’ll never understand,” Adams told the family.
“But that person you knew and that was good to you for that long — you will never understand what happened. It’s almost like a snap. There’s not a lot you can do at that time.”
‘He’d go out of his way’
The TJ that family and friends remember is an outgoing, athletic theater-lover who tried out for the field hockey team in high school just because he and a buddy thought it would be fun.
His mother characterized him as being caring and said he shared that around his community.
“He’d go out of his way if he thought someone was depressed to make him smile,” she said.
In a Saturday interview in the Dodge family’s kitchen, Alex Young, a lifelong friend of TJ’s and a student at Husson University, remembered the energy TJ would bring to any gathering.
“Throw him in a big crowd in [Rockland],” Young said, “and he’ll start dancing around.”
Pam Dodge said her son was constantly on the move. She said he never seemed to let a moment of life go by without enjoying it to its fullest.
“There were some days TJ would come home, go to work, do whatever afterward, come in at 1 or 2 [a.m.] and be right back up at [6 a.m.] going to the gym,” she said.
“He was always on the go. I could not get that kid to sit still.”
His father echoed that, telling a story about a time he got curious about his son’s strength.
“One thing that sticks out: I asked him, ‘Let’s see how strong you really are, kid. Hit your Dad right in the arm, see how much strength you got.’
“He didn’t even put half of it into it, and my arm was sore.”
Trouble at UMaine
But in recent months, those close to him said he showed subtle signs of a change in attitude.
His girlfriend, first-year biology student Nicole Weaver, also said he had been growing uncomfortable in large groups of people.
“My first semester, when we would go out to eat and stuff, he felt like everyone was staring at us. It was really weird, and he always mentioned it,” she said in a Saturday interview at TJ’s parents’ home. “He hated it. He hated it.”
Young agreed that TJ struggled meshing with new groups of people at the university.
“Everybody from around [Rockland] knew who he was and what he was all about,” Young said. “Showing up there [at UMaine], not knowing a lot of people and them not knowing what he had done, he struggled with it.”
Coming from Rockland, TJ left a small, close-knit community for a much larger, less familiar one at UMaine, something that can cause a culture shock, according to Doug Johnson, director of the Counseling Center at the UMaine.
He said many who come to the counseling center cite UMaine’s size as a chief concern.
“The stress of moving to what is maybe the biggest city people have ever seen is a huge transition,” he said. “People do a get a sense of homesickness and difficulty of connecting. It’s overwhelming for students who’ve never had a class bigger than 20 or 30.
“It threatens that sense of purpose, sense of belonging and self-esteem.”
‘Redundant’ safety nets
Although college can be an altogether tough time for many, Johnson said the per-thousand number of suicides on campuses is lower than college-aged people who choose not to attend.
“The national average for college age is one per 10,000 per year, which is lower than the rate for people who are not college students,” Johnson said. “In a sense, we can think of college as a protective factor. We’ve gone for as long as seven or eight years without seeing one. But then we’ll have two or three in a year.”
At UMaine, he said, the number of ways to receive help are necessarily “redundant.”
“We have [resident assistants] who have supervisors. We have the Dean of Students office, we have police … and then the counseling center,” Johnson said. “We’ve done a lot of training as faculty, staff and students on how to recognize the warning signs.”
In 2011, Johnson said the University of Texas surveyed a number of students at colleges and universities across the country — including the University of Maine — about their histories of suicidal ideation.
According to the study, which surveyed 14,080 college undergraduates, the percent of undergrads who have contemplated suicide in their lifetimes was found to be just over 22 percent in 2011, up from nearly 18 percent in 2006, when 15,010 undergrads were surveyed.
“This matches the trend at the University of Maine and nationally, that the number of students with more serious psychological or mental problems has been increasing,” Johnson said. “The number of students arriving on campus already with a medication of depression or anxiety is rising also.
“When we become depressed, our thinking becomes myopic. It’s narrow,” he added. “By reducing symptoms of depression, it allows people to engage their vitality.”
Johnson talked about the types of problems raised when students visit the counseling center, with them mostly being anxiety, depression or struggles with relationships.
“When we see any of the signs of depression or risk factor in people, we will ask directly if you’ve had any thoughts of killing yourself,” he said.
“People are afraid to ask that question. It seems taboo. But the most robust research on this indicates that asking the question reduces risk.”
A lack of alarms
None of TJ’s closest friends or family figured he may have been suicidal. Although his mother recognized a slight change in attitude over spring break, it wasn’t enough to raise any alarms.
“There was something about him that just seemed odd, but I didn’t think too much about it,” Pam Dodge said on Saturday.
“I thought he was cranky or whatever. The meaning [of his attitude] doesn’t change [in hindsight]. Over break was the only time I thought he was a brat. When he came home afterward he was just as good as could be.
“It was the regular old TJ.”
After Pam Dodge received some of TJ’s belongings from the Old Town police, including his laptop and cellphone, the parents ventured to the scene of the accident for the first time, looking around the site for any remnants of the accident.
Since the crash, skepticism clouded Pam Dodge’s reasoning as to the circumstances of her son’s death. While some of the steps along the way still are unclear to her, the more information she received, the clearer it became.
“I know they’ll determine it a suicide,” Pam Dodge said of the state medical examiner. “I’m not comfortable with it, but I see why they’re calling it that.”
Editor’s Note: The University of Maine’s Counseling Center can be reached at 581-1110. Warning signs for suicide, via the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, can be found here. When school is in session, the University of Maine Police Department offers the services of a 24/7, emergency counselor upon request by calling their dispatch line at 581-4040.