Preventing the worst

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October 19, 2010

12:50 AM

It was with heavy hearts that we received the news of sophomore Whitney Mayer’s death late last week, the third suicide at the College in eight months. As before, students received a now all-too-familiar e-mail, calling for sympathy and support. Surely, we would be remiss to not echo that call, but it is also our firm opinion that the College’s response cannot end there. This alarming string of tragedies requires of the administration a reaction that is both extensive and public. As it stands, the administration’s response has been neither.

Of course, the College would logically seek to avoid the grouping together of several — by all measures, unrelated — suicides. But that three students have died in the span of a few months, following a five-year span without any suicides at the College, should be cause for concern for anyone in the College community.
Thus far, the College’s public response has been characterized by the predictable terms: a need for education, communication and discussion. These ideas are important, obviously, but not when left as vaguely defined abstractions.

To be fair, there may already be ways the College has implemented these ideas internally. However, this is not a problem that can or should be dealt with behind-the-scenes. The College has a responsibility to come forward publicly and with a clear and explicit commitment to addressing what has obviously become a pressing problem in the College community. Downplaying the incident as part of a larger trend may be good in regard to public relations, but that strategy is directly contradictory to increasing mental health awareness as a whole.

It is our hope that, whatever that eventual response might be, the College incorporates at least two initiatives. The first is an improvement of the array of mental health counseling available to students, especially through the Counseling Center. Clearly, given the College’s current budget problems many — not least ourselves — have belabored in recent months, increased funding, though desperately necessary, may not be immediately feasible. At the very least, a critical look at the Counseling Center’s current organization and allocation of resources should be considered.

More importantly the administration must increase mental health education at the College as a whole, particularly during Orientation. The Counseling Center operates on a desperately strapped budget, where demand for its services often exceeds the supply it can realistically provide. Adding a program to freshman orientation dealing with mental health and depression, on the other hand, requires a minimal amount of effort from College officials.

As it is, Health Outreach Peer Educators, a student-led group that works closely with the Office of Health Education, provides an extended orientation program addressing these and other health-related issues. This alone is not enough. We frankly find it shameful that some attempt was not made to integrate mental health and depression into the general orientation program following the two suicides last spring. Extended orientation programs are, almost by definition, of a lower priority than those presented during initial freshman orientation. This is not the message we should send to incoming freshmen, nor is it reflective of the level of discourse we find essential to addressing the issue itself.

A general orientation event, where students are not just lectured to briefly by a student organization but encouraged to discuss strategies and reactions amongst their hallmates, would improve awareness on two distinct levels. It would show those in the larger College community how to identify depression among those around you, and how to react in a supportive and helpful manner. In addition, the mere fact of discussing the issue an open and sympathetic environment could help those on the fence regarding their own health to seek help.

Neither of these solutions is a cure-all, of course. But specific goals and improvements would be a welcome improvement to the vague “discussion” the College has outlined thus far, an overdue acknowledgement that some action is desperately necessary.

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