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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Univ seeks answers after student’s death

Suicide leaves questions in its wake

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: Front Page, Top Stories

Kat Sommers ’14 is smiling in a photo next to Prof. Sabine von Mering’s desk inside her office. Two weeks before Sommers took her own life on Feb. 15, she sat in that same office, telling von Mering she was happy at Brandeis.

The day before her death, Sommers appeared happy, smiling and participating in von Mering’s class. In fact, that week, Sommers had taken the initiative, helping to organize a class field trip to see the Disney film “Tangled” after she had missed an earlier class discussion about one of her favorite films.

“The reason why it shocked me so much was she was so enthusiastic,” von Mering said in an interview in her office Thursday afternoon. “That really bothers me—that I didn’t see any signals.”

After Sommers’ suicide von Mering read a paper Sommers wrote for her class, trying to discover warning signs in the text that she might have missed, but found nothing to indicate such distress.

“It was a strong paper that addressed some personal issues but also came across as optimistic,” von Mering said.

As the Brandeis community searches for answers and missed warning signs, it is left filled with questions, simply wondering: How did someone desperately needing help get lost in a college with so many resources and departments specifically designed to help students in need?

A broad support system

The third leading cause of death for people between the ages 15 and 24, suicide is an issue universities are often forced to confront.

The suicide rate at Brandeis, however, is well below the averages for the college age range, with Sommers’ death being the first student suicide since 2009, Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said in an interview last month.

Von Mering, citing a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, said that across the country, more students are approaching faculty and staff about mental health issues and medication they are taking to treat them.

At Brandeis, all community members have 24-hour access to multiple professionally managed organizations and departments. Administrators also said that the most important prevention mechanism is the caring attitude of students and staff.

“There’s an emphasis on caring that goes with our social justice mission,” von Mering said.

Sawyer agreed. “The safety net on this campus is extraordinary. It’s not just us. It’s [students] too,” he said.

At the beginning of every semester, Sawyer sends a memo to faculty and academic administrators detailing the 24-hour access to professionals trained to respond to emergencies. Campus Police, BEMCo and the Psychological Counseling Center are available by phone 24-hours a day.

At all hours, the Community Development Coordinator on duty has access to senior staff in Community Living, who can communicate with an associate dean of student life on call. The memo includes cell phone numbers for the senior staff in Community Living, Public Safety and Student Life.

The response procedures include an “integrated protocol,” between the Division of Student Affairs, Public Safety, Health Services, the Psychological Counseling Center and the Provost’s Office in which contact to one department can be relayed to others, according to a copy of the Spring 2011 memo obtained by The Hoot.

“A concerned staff or faculty member need only contact someone in the protocol network for a speedy and effective response,” Sawyer wrote in the memo.

“For safety and potential liability issues, it is highly recommended that members of the community who witness or hear of a student in crisis pass along the information immediately to someone who is in a position to initiate a response.”

Faculty concerned about a student’s academic stress are instructed to notify an advisor in Academic Services. For faculty and staff unsure of who to contact, they are asked to call Public Safety to manage the situation.

Von Mering explained that faculty often face the dilemma of encouraging students to talk with them when they are stressed about personal issues, but also respecting a student’s right to be known only in an academic context.

“The student should have a right just to be a student,” she said.

The Faculty Senate Council, on which von Mering sits, has decided to schedule a meeting this semester for faculty to speak with staff from the Counseling Center about how to most effectively discover warning signs from stressed students in need of help.

In certain cases, the notification system works both ways. Advisers in Academic Services can notify faculty to watch out for students who have recently experienced a traumatic or stressful event, and von Mering said she has been notified by administrators when students of hers experience a loss in their family such as the death of a parent.

“We treat sensitive information with respect,” Erika Lamarre, director of Community Living said in an interview, adding that staff is encouraged to be respectful of students’ wishes regarding notification.

In an interview on Feb. 16, Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said staff from Community Living and the Office of Student Life had been in contact with Sommers during the week leading up to and on the day of her death, however von Mering said that she was not notified of any concerns related to Sommers.

Sommers was found dead by a community advisor in her residence hall only days after she had moved rooms from the first to the third floor of Gordon Hall in North Quad.

A student changing rooms typically is required to meet with members of the Community Living staff, however Sawyer would not comment further as to the nature of the contact with Sommers, and Lamarre declined to comment Thursday on the nature of any contact with Community Living citing privacy concerns.

Immediate and long-term threats

Administrators and psychiatrists or counselors in the Psychological Counseling Center are trained to respond to immediate threats that a student poses to his or herself or others. Psychiatrists and counselors must comply with state regulations.

According to Massachusetts state law, licensed mental health counselors can violate patient confidentiality under specific conditions, including when “there is a threat of imminently dangerous activity by the patient against himself or another person.” Counselors can break confidentiality in order to assist placing the patient in a hospital, but confidentiality must continue once the patient is in the hospital, under arrest, or “under the supervision of law enforcement authorities.”

“When you move into the area of suicide and homicide, the confidentiality guidelines no longer exist,” Dr. Robert Berlin, Senior Director of the Psychological Counseling Center, said in an interview in his office earlier this semester unrelated to the Feb. 15 suicide.

Von Mering said that faculty and staff recognize immediate responses are crucial in emergencies.

“If there is ever a fear that this student needs something right now, then you walk them over there,” von Mering said.

University police are prepared to work with the Psychological Counseling Center and provide “immediate assistance” during crises, Ed Callahan, Director of Public Safety said during an interview earlier this semester unrelated to the Feb. 15 suicide.

Senior staff in Community Living meet weekly with staff from Student Rights and Community Standards and the Dean’s Office, part of the Division of Student Affairs, Lamarre said.

Lamarre explained that many universities adopted new policies and approaches to handling mental health issues and responding to crises following the Virginia Tech shooting massacre in April 2007 that left 33 students dead.

But because of a strong system already in place at Brandeis, she said the university changed its policies and response system very little, with the exception of logistical changes like emergency sirens.

The university tries to address student’s mental heath issues on campus rather than force them to leave.

“I’m not the gate-keeper,” Berlin said. “I protect people in terms of their mental health issues.” The Dean’s Office largely controls the decision for a student to leave the university, he said.

Administrators and staff have said that many students, even those who did not know Sommers, have been affected by her death. Several students were directly impacted because the suicide occurred inside a residence hall.

“We’re not going to forget them, and we don’t expect them to get over [the suicide] overnight,” Lamarre said.

As the community continues to grieve and react to Sommers’ death, students return to the normalcy of their daily lives at college, days filled with studying for midterms, club meetings and time with friends.

The photo of Sommers on von Mering’s desk remains as a gesture to students, hoping they will reach out in their times of need, whether they are smiling or not.