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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Editorial: Univ must search for answers after tragedy

Published: September 7, 2012
Section: Editorials

With deep sadness, we mourn the death of Akshay Venkatesh ’14 and extend our sincere condolences to his family and friends. Unlike editors at major national newspapers, we do not merely observe and report on what happens to this community. Rather, we live through these events. This week, we do not pretend to isolate ourselves as bystanders to a campus tragedy; we join the Brandeis community in mourning.

University administrators, counselors, deans and community living staff responded quickly and deserve praise for handling the most difficult of situations with composure. Their support each day, but this week in particular, helps students get through difficult times. Yet as appreciative as we are, this week we cannot help but express the other emotions that constantly occupy our minds.

Our grief is joined by fear. For the second time in less than two years, an undergraduate student has taken his own life. On such a small campus, a tragedy this profound reverberates for a long time.

We are below average in the numbers for self-harm. When it comes to suicide, however, numbers and metrics fail. Pain and suffering from one student lost never truly fades, despite time. We do not believe that Brandeis suffers from suicide more than other schools. But if two suicides in less than two years does not alarm administrators and bring a search for answers as to what we can do differently, what does it take?

We recognize that colleges suffer from suicide because of the vulnerable age when young people suffer from mental illness. We cannot escape that. But what we can do is strive as best we can to honestly evaluate our community’s current services and explore ways to improve them. Doing so will not be easy. It will require launching a campus-wide dialogue about mental illness, stress, depression and the ways to treat it. Too often, our society ignores those uncomfortable yet crucial questions about how to cope with mental illness. As we called for in 2011, it is time for this community to ask them again.

Specifically, we recommend the university take three new actions.

First, the dean of student life should launch and chair a biweekly committee meeting to review the cases of troubled students. The counseling center director and senior community living staff, including every CDC, should also attend these meetings. In addition, we urge the school to hire a medical professional from outside the university as a consultant. He or she can provide new advice on how best to handle each case. Competing ideas and differing opinions will create uneasiness among administrators, but they can also make our campus safer.

Second, counseling center hours must be extended and its services promoted. Following the suicide on Monday, the only addition to hours was that the center stayed open one night until 10 p.m. At the very least, there should have been walk-in hours each night this week. Moreover, the university needs to take a more active role in encouraging students to go to counseling. The issue with mental illness is the stigma associated with it. Faculty can play a useful role in asking students who seem unusually stressed and distraught to consider visiting the counseling center.

Though students are informed about the counseling center during orientation, the stigma and difficulty of getting an appointment often prevents students from obtaining help when it is needed. CAs and peers can only do so much to help friends in need. Students are not trained to deal with deeply rooted psychological turmoil. While peer support is extremely important, and students should be given resources for dealing with problems, there is a point where professional help is necessary. Professors, teachers, coaches and club leaders need to encourage students to seek help, not be afraid of asking for it.

Third, President Lawrence should appoint a student life official to compile a comprehensive report within one month on university mental health services, policies and procedures. The biweekly committee should contribute to this report and contribute ideas based on years of experience and student feedback.

We are students, not mental health experts. And we don’t claim to have answers to the most troubling questions surrounding suicide. But we refuse to accept the logic that suicide happens at every college and so inevitably it will happen here.

Each day, staff at Brandeis do an incredible job to keep students safe and to improve our quality of life. Our aim is in no way to point blame or suggest that Akshay Venkatesh’s death was preventable.

But we sincerely hope that as our community continues to grieve and to heal, we can learn more and discover new ways to prevent the next tragedy.

The pain and suffering we feel this week leaves us no choice but to search for answers, no matter how challenging it seems or uncomfortable it feels.