Earlier this month, in the span of a week, students received three emails with subject lines reading “Notification of a Student Death.”
Making up just one facet of the mechanism of “postvention,” the administration’s response to student suicide, emails like these highlight the complexity of dealing with the aftermath.
In the past weeks, students have looked to administrators for greater transparency and more widespread dialogue about deaths in the community. But in trying to maintain the best mental health practices, administrators must walk the fine line between transparency and privacy.
In their emails to the student body regarding student deaths this academic year, the administration opted not to include cause of death until the fourth passing in the second week of January, which was disclosed as a suicide. While not all experts agree, Dr. Doreen Marshall, VP of Programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and others said that reporting the cause of death clears up misinformation and promotes destigmatization.
For instance, emails that do not specify a cause of death have raised confusion and concern among students.
“I think that it’s been a vague response,” said Jacqueline Basulto, CC ’17. “There hasn’t been any real action taken, at least nothing that’s been brought to the attention of the study body. Now that this has proven to be such a frequent occurrence, there should be not only an administrative effort to make things better, but an entire campus engaging in dialogue about what’s happening.”
However, because the requests of family members must be prioritized, the University must try to balance being open with students with respecting the family’s wishes. But other constraints can enter the picture.
Immediately following a student death, the University is unable to make any announcements or contact the family of the victim until the New York Police Department has conducted an investigation, which can span days.
Once the police investigation is completed, the “on-call” team, a group dedicated to crisis response that consists of residential life staff, Undergraduate Student Life deans, public safety, and counseling and psychological services, takes over, according to Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm.
Many experts advocate for the establishment of a similar postvention group tasked specifically with rolling out communication and support for students in the immediate wake of a suicide. However, most stressed the importance of something that Columbia’s team lacks: student participation.
“In addition to mental health professionals, it would be meaningful to have student leadership on a coalition or postvention committee,” Columbia professor of epidemiology in psychiatry Dr. Madelyn Gould said. “It really needs to be a community collaboration.”
Although the on-call team is also not suicide-specific, they respond to suicides for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, reaching out to families and contacting students with close connections to the victim to arrange academic accommodations and, if necessary, refer them to CPS.
While the deaths this year are not necessarily connected, Gould said that students can be put at increased risk of suicide following a death in the community, which can lead to a chain reaction. For this reason, Gould emphasized the importance of both an immediate response by the University following a suicide and maximized referrals to mental health resources (a full guide to those resources can be found here).
“Suicide contagion is a real phenomenon. It doesn't always have to happen, clearly, but once a suicide occurs, it increases the likelihood of another suicide. And it doesn't have to be a close friend or someone in that person's social network,” Gould said. “It's now about diminishing the crisis and getting students the care they need.”
Aside from its communication responsibilities, the University reserves a variety of physical spaces for students to seek help following a student death. In addition to expanding CPS’ hours in the weeks following an incident, the on-call team sets up “safe spaces” in which students can congregate and where they’ll have access to ResLife and CPS staff.
This expansion of hours is vital in combating suicide contagion. Experts confirm that immediate increased availability of mental health resources, safe spaces, and advisers is imperative to maintaining stability throughout a campus.
“Ideally you want to have postvention efforts within the first 72 hours,” said Gould. “We've learned that folks very often are willing to talk to a professional during that time period because their heads are reeling. A lot of negativity can start floating around and that's where community connectedness and focusing on best practices is very important to make sure the student body and faculty don't get hopeless.”
Despite observing a number of these “best practices,” however, administrators said they are constantly changing the structure of awareness and prevention programs.
“The only acceptable number of student deaths is zero,” Dean of Columbia College James Valentini said. “Until we get to zero, nothing we do is going to be sufficient. Even if we have the very best practices in place now, we have to examine what else we can do, what more we can do, because the only acceptable number of student deaths is zero.”
An underlying issue that contributes to the prevalence of suicide is the sense of fear and shame surrounding suicide, according to Dr. Traci Callandrillo, director of the Counseling Center at American University.
“We’re fighting this battle of trying to address a need that can easily be thought of as not a need but rather a weakness,” she said. “We’re trying to manage an issue that is often invisible.”
Basulto, who has created a petition addressing improving campus mental health, supports the idea of more dialogue and openness as a means of destigmatization.
“When I was going through depression, I saw a lot of people sharing their stories and op-eds in Spec, and that was actually really helpful to see that other people were going through that,” Basulto said. “Being open and honest about your own experiences can be really useful. It seems that people die and go almost ignored. At least having a dialogue about it would be much better.”