Letter to the Editor: Mental Health on Campus

Dear President Landgraf/Editor,

I know the students are in pain.

I was one of them, four years ago.

A fellow student committed suicide on campus grounds in the first week of my senior year. Losing him left a deep wound on everyone, one that was slow to heal. But in the days that followed, the college administration made clear and visible efforts to support the students as they grieved.

That night, as word of the tragedy quickly spread through campus, then-President Mitchell Reiss and the college counseling staff met with students. Calls immediately went out to the Eastern Shore Mobile Crisis Unit to supplement on-campus staff.

Now that I have left Washington College, I know that sharing news about a death is never simple, be it a private citizen or a public figure. There are considerations, such as whether an announcement could cause more emotional pain, how to respect the family’s wishes, or how to treat the deceased with dignity.

But with a college that sells itself on being like a small town — and which at times can be as claustrophobic — rumor and news travel quickly. By the time Reiss issued a public comment through a campus-wide email, my friends and I already knew what happened.

500 students, including myself, stood in Martha Washington Square while President Reiss and a pastor held a moment of silence for our classmate and friend. The victory bell rang in memoriam.

National studies have found that suicide rates, particularly those among college-aged men and women, are on the rise in America. The suicide rate is 12.5 per 100,000 population among ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for that age group at 12,073 deaths, behind unintentional injuries, at 29,943.

Five suicides in the last four years can be connected to WC, two of which occured on campus. Two deaths happened this year, one of which occurred merely weeks ago.

Recent reports from students have left me puzzled at the administration’s response, particularly regarding a student-led vigil to honor their friend’s memory. I understand that the college administration wanted to treat this young man with dignity, compassion and respect, explaining why his death was not quickly announced.

But I cannot fathom why students were told to minimize their vigil plans on social media and not to walk to the square, the same place where four years earlier, hundreds of students mourned a classmate and friend.

These students were ordered to grieve in a way that would not create a public scene, and that is upsetting and offensive to me, as an alumni that shared this experience.

My question to the college administration is this: in the four years since my classmate’s death, what has been done to improve mental health care on campus?

There were reactionary efforts after the college appeared in the national media, when a 19-year-old student died after he was ostracized and almost expelled. But does the college administration have a plan, moving forward, to better prevent another tragedy, to reach out students and staff that are struggling and hurting?

I am heartsick of the repeating news of another tragedy at my college. I hope my desire to hear a plan to address this mental health issue will be answered swiftly, clearly and publicly.

To the students: you may not know me, but I know you. You are not alone.

Sincerely,

Katie Tabeling

Class of 2014

The Elm

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