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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

News Analysis: Second suicide in two years shocks campus

Published: September 7, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

State police, district attorney staff and medical examiners responding to an apparent suicide filled Brandeis dorm rooms for the second time in less than two years Monday. Junior Akshay Venkatesh’s death rattled the campus community on Labor Day, sending painful reminders to administrators and students in the class of 2014, who lost Kat Sommers ’14 after she took her own life just days before February vacation in 2011.

On a campus with a multitude of resources ranging from counselors to chaplains to confidential hotlines to community advisors, this tragedy now brings the inevitable search for answers as to how a student so desperately needing help is lost at Brandeis.

To media inquiries, the details surrounding any suicide case, including whether students received counseling or had contact with school officials, are covered in medical privacy laws.

For university President Fred Lawrence, who in 2011 took a red-eye flight home from a California fundraising trip and for Chief of Staff David Bunis who in 2011 had just started days earlier in his new job, they found a campus hurting, grieving and searching for answers as to why the tragedy of suicide struck the small Waltham campus.

Last year, hundreds filled into Hassenfeld Conference Center on a weekday winter afternoon, seeking comfort from their classmates, teachers and community leaders. This year, hundreds surrounded Chapels Pond on a warm summer evening and heard Lawrence convey the familiar words: “There is a deep tear in the fabric of the Brandeis community.”

Student life and community living staff found the response and crisis management too familiar.

“Because the Kat situation was just two years ago, the things that happened on Monday in response just seemed to flow,” Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said.

Last year, students flooded the counseling center into the early hours of the morning, but this year the counseling center remained open until 10 p.m. Monday night. School officials said they noticed less demand for counseling this year than last year following the suicide, possibly because Sommers was a first-year student and Venkatesh a junior.

But for whatever differences there were between Feb. 15, 2011, and Sept. 3, 2012, suicide on a college campus prompts the same painful and disturbing questions and accompanying search for answers. Those questions, for the students and staff who knew the student, linger and never completely fade over time.

Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel, visibly distraught, spoke to The Hoot between meetings with his colleagues on Tuesday, and reflected on the personal impact that every suicide leaves, regardless of numbers at any school.

“You never really recover from these losses,” Flagel said. “I still feel every student that I’ve lost.”

Although senior administrators and Lawrence communicate with the university community, a dean serves as the crisis team leader. Last time it was Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer and this time it was Associate Dean of Student Life Maggie Balch.

In a joint interview in Sawyer’s office Wednesday morning, both offered responses to the shock, confusion and fear that hundreds of students, many of whom never knew Venkatesh, now find themselves coping with.

Although noting that metrics offer no comfort in such cases, Sawyer added that Brandeis is well under the average suicide rates for college campuses based on student population.

“We are still well, well under, if metrics mean anything,” Sawyer said. “We’re still well under—that doesn’t mean we’re complacent.”

Often listed as the third leading cause of death each year among young people by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is an issue colleges are forced to confront at an alarming rate because of the age range for students.

Flagel reflected on the disturbing national numbers.

“The sad fact is that with all of the systems in place, nationally we still have far, far too many students lost,” Flagel said.

The theme echoed from Lawrence to other staff on campus was about resources and help this week.

Speaking at the candlelight vigil Monday evening, Flagel cautioned students to depend on one another to find comfort.

“Hold on to one another. Trust one another. Continue to love and support one another,” Flagel said. “With the leaders that you are it is sometimes hard to recognize that it is okay to ask for help,” he added.

“We so badly want to help but we can only help when somebody says that they’re afraid or that they’re struggling,” Balch said.