Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Student deaths at WPI spark renewed concern about mental health on college campuses

Content warning: The following article discusses suicide.

On Tuesday, Worcester Polytechnic Institute announced that a student was found dead in an off-campus apartment over the weekend. The cause of death has yet to be released publicly by WPI. This death was the seventh student death WPI had endured in the last seven months, five of which have been confirmed or suspected suicides, underscoring a national uptick in mental health issues among college students since the start of the pandemic. 

Little information can be found currently about the exact toll COVID-19 has caused on mental health due to the recency of the events. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in June 2020, 10% of adults had considered suicide within the past month, rising from four percent two years prior. 

According to a survey by Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association, college students reported lower levels of psychological well-being than prior to the pandemic. And according to a survey by BestColleges.com, 95% of college students reported “negative mental health symptoms” as a result of the pandemic, and 48% believed this had a negative impact on their academic performance.

Anecdotal evidence shows that suicide, already the second leading cause of death among college-aged adults, has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2006 and 2020, WPI had only experienced two suicides compared to five between July 2021 and January 2022. Other universities, including UNC Chapel Hill, Darthmouth, St Louis University and Yale, among others,  all lost students to suicide during the pandemic. 

Reporting by the Daily Free Press in the Spring of last year covered Boston University students’ struggles with dealing with mental health. Students reported that outlets they usually had to deal with mental health problems slipped away due to COVID isolation, with one student stating “I wouldn’t be able to go out with my friends, hang out with them and try to take my mind off of it.” 

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

Colleges and universities have had to come up with solutions to mental health problems that have existed for many years, but have come into the forefront with the pandemic. 

Many instituted policies like “mental health” or “wellness” days, where students were given some period off from classes or schoolwork. Others  expanded their offerings for mental health counseling and other resources. 

Today, almost two years since the outbreak of the pandemic, while many schools have abandoned the remote learning model, mental health problems continue to exist on campuses and will continue past the pandemic. 

While they fight off the pandemic of COVID-19, colleges and universities need to take major steps to help fend off the epidemic of mental health issues on their campuses. These two issues should be treated with the same importance and seriousness. 

Universities must consider the impact of their schools policies on students’ mental health. The connection between distance learning, which has ended at many schools, and strong feelings of isolation and loneliness appears to be a clear one. While in some cases remote learning may be necessary for some situations, schools should think twice before sending students back home for distance learning. 

This same type of thinking should continue in schools past the pandemic. Many widespread academic policies – courses comprised almost entirely of tests and heavily weighted exams, to name a few – that lead to major stress and feelings of burnout among students, should be reconsidered with respect to their effect on students’ mental health. 

For too long, mental health has been rarely considered an important part of the national consciousness. The pandemic has made everyone realize that mental health should be a major priority, and should be considered in equal footing with physical health. 

America’s higher education institutions need to realize this too, and they need to act on it.

Anyone having life-ending thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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One Comment

  1. I’m trying to find like-minded people who are willing to fight this fight. Mentally ill college students are one of the most oppressed groups of people around. I have seen a very horrible scenario play out over and over again in competitive colleges. Some students commit suicide; the students are outraged and sad; the admin sends out e-mails saying how sorry they are for the loss; the admin offers grief counselors and a candlelight vigil; the students press for a genuine change; the college says they will bring in a consulting group to do research; the students believe that the college is for real and wants to change things; the students back off; these real people with real lives become statistics; they are forgotten; the research drags on; the college hires another counselor and more trainings on suicide prevention but NOTHING ACTUALLY CHANGES! Then a year later there are more suicides and the cycle repeats. The college acts like they care but they don’t care enough to do what it takes so that there will be NO MORE SUICIDES! They decided that it is cheaper to have a few suicides than it is to make changes that will stop suicide! I have seen this pattern happen at the college I attended: Columbia College in NYC. I saw it happen at MIT and Dartmouth. There was a recent evaluation of ivy league colleges to see how they did with complying with the disabilities act in regard to mentally ill students. Most colleges got D’s. One got an F! Colleges know that many brilliant students suffer with mental health issues but won’t take responsibility to support them. You need a pro-active approach. With people of color and with LGBTQ colleges don’t say “let us know when a situation of intimidation or prejudice arises and we will address it.” NO! They do preemptive work and education. BUT this is exactly what they do with mentally ill students- they only step in when something happens. Often that something is suicide. These folks need support from the very START of their college career.
    Many talk about “STOP THE STIGMA”. That’s a lie! You can’t stop the stigma with a slogan. First off students with mental health issues are ashamed of their struggle. Also, many colleges with force them to take a lengthy leave of absence if they voice any mental health struggles. I have read of many cases. The only genuine way to work toward stopping the stigma is for colleges to welcome students who qualify for admission but have mental health issues. They could meet with the admissions people with their family and treaters and figure out what kind of supports the student would need to feel ok and be able to thrive. In this way the student would not have to keep their struggle secret and they could have a good experience in college. wouldn’t this way be much better that trying to help the person after they have gotten so miserable and desperate that they try to commit suicide? All many people see with mentally ill students is the suicide; they don’t see the months and maybe years of struggle and isolation and pain and misery that have led up to that tragic choice.
    I strongly believe that laws need to be passed REQUIRING colleges to support these students instead of allowing them to flounder and in many cases to die by suicide! If you or any other journalist or friend wants to join this fight for justice please have them contact me. My heart is in this battle! I work in mental health!