College is a new frontier filled with academic and social opportunities, as well as a chance for young adults to exercise their independence. However, the pressure of academics, making friends and staying involved in a new environment can also lead to high levels of stress and mental health issues.
In the midst of a pandemic, situations of stress, depression, anxiety and uncertainty occur more frequently, worsening a lot of people’s mental health — even more so when the country is also battling racial injustices and unprecedented elections. With all of these situations going on, the week before the presidential elections, four Drexel students were hospitalized for suicidal ideation, said Tania Czarnecki, Executive Director of Counseling and Training Director of Drexel’s Counseling Center. This is the most hospitalization cases they have had this year, compared to nine total hospitalization cases in all of 2019.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, approximately 1,100 university students across the U.S. choose to end their lives per year. The reasons behind each suicide vary from case-to-case, but there are consistent factors that contribute to higher rates of mental health problems among college students. According to an article from the Illinois Department of Public Health, sleep deprivation, substance abuse and disturbed eating patterns are all risk factors for suicide.
As suicide rates continue to rise across the country, many colleges and universities including Drexel, have implemented resources, such as mental health counseling, peer counseling and diverse health and wellness programs for students. However, even with these new means to combat this issue, the number of suicide-related deaths on college campuses continues to rise.
There seems to be a reluctance from university administrations to look at the driving forces behind suicides among college students and make systemic changes. Each college student struggles in their own way and responds differently to the changes in their life. Suicide is a multifaceted issue and cannot be addressed with one solution.
Drexel University’s Office of Counseling and Health Services is one of the main resources for students struggling with mental health issues. The center, which normally operates on the second floor of MacAlister Hall, now offers all of their services through online platforms: individual and group teletherapy, psychiatry services, virtual workshops on various anxiety and mood management topics, same-day support appointments, outreach services, after-hours phone calls for students, an on-call crisis line and many other options. Recently, some of the most popular services have been the workshops, including their anxiety toolbox one, and their outreach services like stress management during COVID or international students navigating politics.
In an interview with a Drexel student, who decided to remain anonymous and has attended counseling sessions, the student mentioned that she found out about the counseling center during Drexel’s Welcome Week, where freshmen are the only students on campus. Welcome Week’s activities allow incoming students to learn about the different clubs and resources available to them.
“I think I put more into it than what I got out of it in terms of getting myself situated and having a schedule with them. I wanted more support and ideas about how I could develop better coping mechanisms but for some reason, it wasn’t that simple,” the student said when she was asked about her experience at the counseling center.
This student also mentioned that her counselor mostly listened to her talk and nodded his head every few seconds.
“I had always felt through all the sessions that I was talking too much and based on his responses it was like he wasn’t even listening to me. All he would say was ‘uh-huh’,” the student said.
However, Amparo Nieto’s experience at the Office of Counseling was completely different.
Nieto, a third-year student at LeBow College of Business, said she first went to the Office of Counseling in her freshman year because it was difficult to adapt to college and many other academic and social aspects. Nieto said that everything was new for her as an international student from Argentina. However, once she solved those issues, she never used the center again for that year.
“In sophomore year I had a big panic attack and I realized these issues that I haven’t been sharing are coming back to the surface, so it was like I have to go, I have to actually ask for help, instead of pretending that it’s like all okay and it really changed everything. From last fall term to this full-term, my life is completely different,” Nieto said.
Nieto then began meeting with a counselor once a week, and she found the extent of resources the Counseling Center offers.
“I attended a workshop and I also found out they offer psychiatry services, and since then, I have been suggesting their services to my friends because they are technically already charged in our tuition,” Nieto said.
Nonetheless, one big issue Nieto had with the counseling center during the COVID pandemic was when she had to move to Ohio and she could not attend her on-going sessions because of licensing issues.
“Sometimes the licensing restrictions on different states don’t permit people who are licensed in other states to do ongoing therapy unless you’re licensed there. Even though we all pass a national exam to get licensed, every state has its own restrictions. But at the beginning [of the pandemic] a lot of states relaxed that,” said Annette Molyneux, the Director of Counseling and Health.
At the moment, the center can only do on-going sessions with students located in the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The last two states are permited because they had relaxed their licensing restrictions due to the pandemic, Tania Czarnecki said. The only options available for students located in other states or countries are the call lines, the same-day support appointments, the 7 Cups online service and the asynchronous recordings of the workshops. Nonetheless, the office’s case manager has been also working with students in other locations to help them find therapy services wherever they are.
These past weeks, in the wake of the elections, were the busiest ones for the Office of Counseling. Besides their regular services, they offered two weeks of same-day appointments every day. Additionally, they had their busiest week of the year just before Election Week, with four cases of hospitalization because of suicidal ideation, Tania Czarnecki said.
“[When] students can call the [crisis line] number, we do a risk assessment where we think about the student’s plan and intent. We will consult as needed with one another and then it’s deemed where the student does need to go to the hospital. Then, we work with the Hospital of Pennsylvania at 34th and Spruce St. to notify them that we have a student that we’d like to go there for a crisis evaluation and then, we will work with the Drexel Police Department if appropriate, to help us transport a student safely over there,” Czarnecki said, explaining the process the Office of Counseling takes when hospitalizing a student.
The center also tries to involve the student in the process making them agreeable with the hospitalization, they ask them if there is anyone they would want the Office of Counseling to reach out to like a parent, an advisor or a friend. After that, the office does a follow up with the hospital to see where the student went and work with them for a discharge plan, Czarnecki said.
“We have also received calls from relatives of someone afraid of their mental health. Most times are friends or roommates of someone who they might think has suicidal thoughts. In those cases, we can call them to check with them,” Molyneux said. “However, the issue we sometimes come up within those cases is that the friends do not want us to tell the person who they were referred by and we cannot call someone for a wellness check out of the blue without telling them who referred them.” In those cases, Czarnecki added, they try to train whoever is calling on how to talk and approach someone who is in this situation.
Nonetheless, the service that receives most of these calls is the Drexel Police Departments, Molyneux said. “A lot of people call them directly when they know of someone with suicide ideation and they have very well-trained officers who go to the person and do a wellness check. From that process on, they can give the student our information or directly inform us if the student needs to be taken to the hospital,” the Director of Counseling and Health explained.
Resident Assistants: The Help First-Year Students Don’t Have With Online Learning
At Drexel, Resident Assistants are one of the first lines of defense when it comes to suicide prevention and providing resources for managing mental health problems. However, since the spring term of last school year when classes went remote, first-year students have not been able to count on this support.
When students were using on-campus housing, RAs received extensive training from the Resident Director about how to best handle situations with residents who may be struggling with mental health . RAs were trained to handle extreme cases of suicidal residents. For Ethan Hermann, an RA at Bentley Hall, his RD was Amy Bevins.
“We have floor meetings at the beginning of the year to kind of set the tone about who we are as an RA, but also provide available resources to students. Whether it’s talking with the counseling center or mentioning that we have on-campus resources that they can call or text if they need any help,” said Hermann, one of the Bentley Hall RAs.
Hermann went on to say that he feels his residents know they can come to him to talk, but he always reminds them that RAs are mandated reporters. This means that they are required to report to whoever their RD is if a resident is putting themselves or others at risk.
Like Hermann, Alexandra George (a third-year RA at Drexel) said she believes her residents trusted her and could come to her with problems or just to talk.
Through training, RAs learn that they are a resident’s first resource, but not their therapists. RAs are trained to recommend residents to the Office of Counseling and Health Services to seek further help, said George.
RAs are also responsible for conducting “wellness checks” when a concern is brought to Housing and Residence Life Staff regarding a resident. Wellness check protocol means that an on-duty RA will knock on a resident’s door, identify themselves and then ask the resident questions about how they might be feeling.
Training, which occurs two weeks before classes begin in the fall, teaches RAs how to identify trigger words and phrases that may indicate that a resident is contemplating suicide.
George explained that these situations can be anxiety-inducing, which is why RAs are taught to stick to the acronym QPR: question, persuade, refer. The question that is the hardest to ask,: “Have you thought about committing suicide?”, is practiced during group training sessions so that RAs can become more comfortable asking it.
If a resident discloses that they have thought about committing suicide, RAs next ask if the resident has a plan.
There are emergency counselors on duty at all times to deal with situations where a resident poses an immediate threat to themselves or others.
With the support of RAs and similar mental health programs at colleges and universities across the country, it appears that cases of suicide should be less frequent. Despite this, suicide remains the second highest cause of death among college students, according to SafeColleges.
Drexel University’s notorious co-op program and 10-week terms are some of its main selling points for soon-to-be college students. However, the fast-pace academic calendar and career-centered curriculum also contribute to widespread stress and anxiety among students.
Looking Back: the History of College Suicides
Nationally, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007, from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 14.4 in 2017 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Cornell University in Ithaca, NY — seven hours away from New York City — is a prestigious Ivy League school known for its high-status and academics but also for their numerous suicide cases throughout the years. In a study of college suicides made by the Boston Globe, nine students committed suicide at Cornell in the span of a decade from 1999 to 2000, representing 5.7 student deaths per 100,000 per year. These statistics put Cornell in the fourth position out of the 11 peer institutions, the Globe ranked.
With 11 suicides in the same number of years and a student death rate of 10.2, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology far surpassed Harvard University (which has 7.4 deaths per 100,000 per year) and Duke University (6.1 suicides per 100,000 per year). MIT’s suicide rate is also 53 percent greater than the national average among college students, which is 10 per 100,000 per year, according to a 2001 study.
Many people living in Ithaca now seem to be inured to suicide. For as long as anyone can remember, Cornell’s gorges under the Thurston Avenue bridge have granted the town the unwanted distinction of “suicide capital of the combined Ivy League, Big Ten, Little Three and Seven Sisters,” as one local writer put it in an interview for Rob Fishman’s 2010 investigation in The Huffington Post.
After the suicide of a senior on March 10, 1968, by the bridge, advocacy projects against suicide grew in Ithaca, according to an article by The Cornell Daily Sun (Cornell’s independent student newspaper). The city of Ithaca created a Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, which was incorporated in 1969. That first year, the crisis phone line received 387 calls. By 2010, there were between 20 to 35 calls per day, or nearly 10,000 calls each year. Deb Traunstein, the Director of Education, explained many of the callers are overwhelmed with work or worried about their futures, but not in any immediate danger. However, not everyone who is feeling suicidal calls the crisis line, Fishman clarifies in his HuffPost article.
By the end of 1973, the decade had already seen eight suicides in Ithaca, seven associated with the university and four in the gorges, Fishman writes.
In quick succession, three students died in the gorges. Their classmates became despondent, and, on a November midnight, staged an impromptu rally on West Campus. 500, indignant freshmen yelled out into the night sky, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” a catchphrase from the movie Network. Cornell declared a mental state of emergency due to academic pressure, students formed a Committee for Humanism and the Health Clinic opened a formal program aimed at suicide prevention — one of the first at a college in the nation. A joint committee of faculty and campus council voted for a fall break in October, which still exists today, Schroeder told the HuffPost.
Yet by the next year, the crisis had abated. Fall term ended without incident.
In 1977, such barriers had been added to the suspension bridge over Fall Creek, which one professor described to the HuffPost as a “claustrophobic channel with a honky-tonk garishness worthy of Las Vegas [where] serried ranks of close-spaced bars make a prison corridor.”
Another faculty member wrote disapprovingly: “Many people were and are truly depressed by the prison-like atmosphere created by the ‘cure’ applied to the suspension bridge…I do not take it as a given truth that saving one young (or old) life from self-destruction is to be weighed more heavily than the rare opportunity the suspension bridge once offered thousands of people every year to be immersed very closely in God’s beauty.”
Fishman later said in his HuffPost article that in 1994, after six years and another death, a university trustee asked President Frank H.T. Rhodes at a meeting of the executive committee if the gorges were influencing the number of suicides. The president reflected that firearms were an influence, yes; but the gorges? No.
“At bottom, the question for Cornell is not whether the gorges afford a dangerous outlet for the disconsolate or disturbed (by all accounts, they do). It’s if, absent the gorges, some of the suicides could be avoided,” Fishman writes.
Maria Hnaraki, a professor at Cornell University from 2003 to 2006 who currently teaches at Drexel University, said that during her time in Ithaca, she does not remember any suicide cases, although she had heard of the problem before she got there. Additionally, she does not recall any resources given to her by the university on how to handle situations where she suspects that a student is struggling with mental health issues.
“[However,] my classes were all electives, so I never felt my students were into any sort of pressure since it was up to them to join them,” Hnaraki noted.
“During my tenure at Cornell, I worked mostly with graduate and/or international students. I would always put together cultural events such as music and dance as well as cooking workshops and movie nights,” Hnaraki went on. “I trust this contributed a lot to their psychological situation, in positive ways.”
Hnaraki also mentions that, unlike Cornell, Drexel has required its professors to put the information about our counseling centers in the syllabus of every course and provide a cell number or another immediate way of being contacted in case something happens on or around Drexel’s campus.
Where are we now?
There is no data indicating that suicide is more prevalent at elite institutions than at two-year or four-year colleges, according to a 2014 New York Times article by Julie Scelfo.
Sadly, Drexel’s statistics are not better than the average. Since 2001, there have been at least eight student deaths linked with depression or suicide.
On April 26, 2001, Brien Kivlen,18, a first-year student at Drexel’s LeBow School of Business, was found dead at approximately 5:45 a.m. in the outdoor parking lot of the Sheraton, located near 36th and Chestnut streets, according to a Daily Pennsylvanian article.
“According to Penn Police Chief Maureen Rush, a passerby stepped into the Sheraton — which is owned by the University of Pennsylvania — to alert hotel officials that something had fallen from the roof,” said the article, written by Alexis Gilbert. The body was found by members of the housekeeping staff, who called University Police and the Philadelphia Police. Kivlen was pronounced dead at the scene.
“But according to Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the Medical Examiner’s Office, Kivlen sustained ‘multiple injuries’ and, in the end, his death was ‘ruled a suicide’,” Gilbert wrote.
On June 16, 2012, Stevens Glemaud’s parents came to Drexel from West Orange, NJ to pick him up at the end of school. Glemaud was nowhere to be found. His parents reported him missing that day, according to an NBC10 Philadelphia article.
Two days later, Glemaud’s body was found in the Schuylkill River near Kelly Drive and Boathouse Row, and a suicide ruling was issued for his death the following Wednesday.
The following year, on March 2, 2013, Drexel senior Jakub Susul was found dead by his roommate in their off-campus apartment. Susul was a business major with an accounting concentration in the LeBow College of Business, according to an article written by Helen Nowotnik for The Triangle.
A close friend of Susul, who wished to remain anonymous in Nowotnik’s article, said Susul had planned to get his master’s in accounting and eventually wanted to become a certified public accountant. He was in the process of applying to master’s programs at Drexel and Temple University and was scheduled to take his Graduate Management Admission Test in April.
Just a day later, on March 3, 2013, Thao “Joe” Nguyen was found dead by Drexel Public Safety personnel in her room in Caneris Hall after a concerned friend called about her, according to a Triangle article written by Julia Casciato. Nguyen was a sophomore English major and art history minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, an active member of the Foundation of Undergraduates for Sexual Equality and a Pennoni Honors Program student.
“Like you, I find these events to be shocking and upsetting, and I grieve for this young man and woman, their friends and families, and everyone who knew them. Our University will feel their absence keenly,” President John Fry said in an email sent March 4, 2013, to the Drexel Community. “I am deeply saddened to have to write this message, but I am comforted by the certainty that the members of our community will come together to support each other in the wake of these tragedies, and to cherish the memories of Jakub and Thao.”
On February 28, 2015, 18-year-old Taline Nicole King, a freshman at the College of Computing and Informatics from Moorestown, NJ was found dead in her dorm room at Myers Residence Hall, according to university information provided to Mark Daniels for a South Jersey Times article.
Officers with the Philadelphia Police Department Southwest Detectives Division and university police officers investigated the incident and reportedly determined there was no evidence of foul play in King’s death.
Additionally, in the last three academic years, there have been three student deaths in the Drexel community.
On June 12, 2019, 19-year-old Andrew Yun, went missing after he was last seen at Towers Hall during spring term finals week when his family came to pick him up from Chapel Hill, NC, according to a PhillyVoice article written by Michael Tanenbaum. Five days later, on June 17, he was found dead in Los Angeles. According to officials, there were no signs of foul play involved in Yun’s death.
Yun was a freshman at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design majoring in Film & Television. “Drexel officials have been in close contact with Andrew’s family and conveyed the entire Drexel community’s sincerest condolences,” Fry said in an email to the community sent on June 17, 2019. “Andrew showed great promise and potential in his first year at Drexel. His loss is deeply felt by all of us in the Drexel community. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Yun family during this most difficult time. We will continue to support them in any way possible.” The email ended with the information of Drexel’s counseling center and a suicide prevention hotline.
Five months later, on November 12, 2019, the Dean of the College of Computing and Informatics, Yi Deng, sent an email to all the members of the college informing them that a student was found deceased in their off-campus apartment over the weekend, Ethan Hermann reported in a Triangle article.
The email went into some detail about the student, saying how they were a “promising” student within the College of Computing and Informatics. It explained that Drexel University officials had reached out to the student’s family to “express sincere condolences on behalf of the Drexel community,” Hermann wrote.
There were not public articles or information published about the name of the student or the cause of death, but the Triangle article finished with recommendations to the Drexel community to take care of their “physical health, mental health, [and] emotional health.”
So, what would ideal mental health resources look like on a college campus?
According to The Recovery Village, some of the top colleges and universities for mental health support offer programs like individual and group therapies, sexual assault programs, psychological resources and alcohol and drug dependency programs. Some of the top schools include the University of Pittsburg and The Ohio State University. These schools offer a variety of services that are geared toward students that could be struggling with stress, anxiety, depression or just need a stress-free atmosphere to escape to.
Some of the more unique programs from the top colleges and universities for mental health programs includ mindfulness workshops, nutrition coaching, and financial well-being coaching. These resources help students cope with some of the main contributors to suicidal thoughts and actions that arise while attending college.
Although Drexel already offers some programs for adjusting to college, alcohol and substance abuse, and disordered eating, many students are unaware that they exist. The disconnect between students struggling with these mental health problems and seeking the help they need is a roadblock in the university’s efforts to support its students.
“Ambition to Drexel is fearlessness. And that’s something that I think is a double-edged sword.”
University life can be very stressful, and some students don’t have the resources to find help, and although Drexel promotes their counseling center it hasn’t been safeguarding their students, especially in recent years.
“Ambition to Drexel is fearlessness. And that’s something that I think is a double-edged sword,” RA Ethan Hermann said. He went on to say that having mental health resources available for students isn’t enough. “I think RAs do a good job of being messengers for the counseling center, but I feel like there isn’t a presence from them that is really active in the community. I haven’t really seen that presence on campus.”
The continuous rise in suicide rates among college and university students has put pressure on these very institutions to implement the necessary resources for students to combat and cope with mental health issues. Unfortunately, Drexel University’s mental health outreach has remained unchanged in light of these incidents.
“Changes need to be made. We aren’t going to solve this problem by ignoring it until the next student death happens. That’s just not proactive,” Hermann said.