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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Univ. can offer more help to suicide survivors

Published: November 21, 2014
Section: Opinions

Recently, one of my closest friends was the first responder to a suicide attempt. Even for trained adults, it can be incredibly difficult to respond to such emotionally charged situations, but it’s especially hard for students to have to figure out how to respond. Witnessing or surviving a suicide attempt becomes even harder when one doesn’t receive support from their university or when the university actively works against them. Luckily, in this case the victim survived the ordeal, but the pain the university’s response has caused everyone involved in the attempt has been incredibly damaging.
The official response from the university has been both disjointed and ultimately destructive. While my friend has received great support in overcoming the ordeal, the victim, however, was placed on a mandatory leave of absence from the university, ostensibly as an opportunity to work on their mental health. In practice, however, this leave of absence is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to minimize the university’s liabilities while simultaneously hurting their students most at risk.
I don’t think it should be necessary to have to explain how punishing someone for suicidal thoughts is counterproductive, but unfortunately I feel that I have to. If someone is so depressed or angry that they are considering suicide, then they probably already have an incredibly low opinion of themselves. Having the university they attend then punish them for thinking those thoughts only reinforces this lack of self-esteem. No one should be blamed for suicidal thoughts; we should only focus on helping those in pain.
Sending them back home, then, probably won’t help them improve their mental state. Many college students deep in depression don’t have a strong family network to turn to for support, and banishing them from campus can cut off their access to mental health resources. There is no way for them to get better if they cannot see a therapist or get professional help, but at home far too many students won’t get the help they need. We are, then, dooming people to, at best, long-term emotional harm, and at worst a possible successful attempt in the future.
What the university seems to be doing is minimizing its potential exposure to negative publicity by requiring this student to leave campus. Brandeis, like most other universities around the U.S., is incredibly focused on marketing itself to students around the country. In an environment where the admission rate is increasingly seen as synonymous to the prestige of the university, I won’t say that this isn’t understandable. To prioritize positive publicity above the welfare of their students, however, goes beyond being undesirable to being borderline criminal. If a student were to commit suicide on campus, it does have the possibility of decreasing the number of applications next year. That shouldn’t, however, be a factor in deciding how to deal with students at risk for suicide.
Our campus does have the resources necessary to help students who struggle with feelings of self-hatred, but too often these resources are hard to access. When my friend first visited the Psychological Counseling Center (PCC), she was told to just fill out some forms and come back another time to talk to someone. The center schedules her visits for her, and the university requires her to go, meaning that she no longer even has control of her schedule. The current process is impersonal, demeaning and ineffective.
It doesn’t, however, have to be that way. There are many people on our campus, and even in the PCC who really want to help students tackle the problems they are facing. If we could only reduce the bureaucracy surrounding access to mental health resources, it would be much easier for students to get the help they need easily. There still exists a massive stigma associated with mental health in the U.S. and on campus, and reducing the barriers people have to face to overcome that stigma can only be a good thing. In fact, if students had better access to mental health facilities they might be able to find help prior to attempting suicide. We have an obligation, as a university community, to provide everyone on campus with the resources they deserve.
The university has failed its most vulnerable students by having such poor policies implemented around suicide prevention. It is not difficult to imagine the changes that need to be carried out, but so far we haven’t had the results we need. In the meantime, I only hope that no one suffers through something that the university could have helped to prevent.