The past few weeks at Columbia have been difficult ones: There have been four student deaths since December, and at least two of those undergraduates have taken their own lives.
To say that these events have shaken our community would be an understatement. Each subsequent notification of the death of friends and classmates has been not only deeply distressing but, also, increasingly surreal. Above all, it has made one thing clear to both the 141st editorial board and the campus at large: Whether interpersonal or institutional, something needs to change.
Over the years, Counseling and Psychological Services has expanded and increased resources for different identity groups. The University also has a series of procedures and practices in place to address the aftermath of suicide on campus. But a Spectator news analysis on Thursday found that we can still do more, pointing to the lack of “gatekeepers” available to monitor the mental health of students. As psychologist Doreen Marshall told Spectator, “The more people that have a basic understanding of what to look for that might indicate someone’s struggling, the better.”
Trained professionals are necessary and important, but they should not be, and are not, our first line of defense. Rather, it is students that need to have a better understanding of the warning signs for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, how to help, and why they should provide assistance.
That can and should begin at orientation. While NSOP programming covers a wide variety of issues, from sexual violence and respect to alcohol and drug use, it currently fails to provide any programming specifically directed toward suicide prevention. It is imperative that an understanding of mental health and signs of risk begin from the moment students step foot on campus.
Having a diverse student body is crucial for an academic environment. But it can also mean that students come in with vastly different understandings of mental health and suicide prevention. Knowing what resources are available is only enough if students know when they or their friends need to seek them out. Small group discussions with Orientation Leaders specifically trained to discuss mental health and teach QPR—a system for gatekeepers to recognize warning signs of suicide and how to respond—to first-years would ensure that students are interacting with a wider variety of resources, as well as standardize the understanding of mental health across the student body.
But University-wide mental health programming should not stop after orientation. The nature of NSOP is such that students are bombarded with information from all sides and are therefore liable to forget even the most essential. Continuing education, such as online check-ins—similar to what is in place for the Sexual Respect Initiative—or in-person programming as part of ResLife, is necessary to keep students aware of mental health and suicide prevention.
However, this would only be effective if we, as students, held each other accountable to care. Too often, as with any kind of mandatory programming—especially during orientation—it becomes a badge of honor to skip or sleep through it. Complacency is unacceptable: Sexual violence response and suicide prevention cannot be taken lightly. In order to start taking our community’s mental and physical health seriously, we need to behave as if the resources and programs available are not just mandatory on paper, but fundamentally vital to the way we shape our experience and safety at Columbia.
To that end, we must recognize that mental health at Columbia does not exist in a vacuum. It is inextricably tied to factors including academic stress—in part because Columbia students have the highest graduation requirements in the Ivy League—a self-perpetuated stress culture, and the unforgiving realities of living in a cosmopolitan environment.
Columbia will always be known as a rigorous institution. But it does not have to be an unhealthy one.
Dean Valentini has directed the Committee on Instruction to consider implementing a credit cap to protect students from what seems like a widespread misunderstanding of a reasonable course load. We cannot suggest what the credit cap should be, but perhaps it is time for the University to take more steps to tangibly discourage the unhealthy culture of competitive stress that exists on this campus.
Ultimately, however, while the University can and should take direct action to ensure the well-being of its community, we, as students, are on the front line. We cannot pretend the problem is merely an administrative one, nor can we hope to create an environment of compassion without taking action ourselves. It is our responsibility to look out for each other. It is our responsibility to step outside of ourselves, to be more aware of the people around us.
It is our responsibility to care.
The authors are members of Spectator’s 141st editorial board. Aaron Holmes recused himself from contributing to this editorial due to his coverage of the issue.
To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.