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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Faculty, univ officials reflect on suicide

Published: March 11, 2011
Section: Front Page

University officials and faculty discussed the mental health support system at Thursday’s faculty meeting as they tried to make sense and discover lessons after the suicide of Kat Sommers ’14 last month.

A senior Psychological Counseling Center official said he hopes that with a new president, the university will take an initiative to foster discussions between faculty and students about mental illness and the support necessary to treat it.

“I’m always in this odd position … having so much to say and not really being able to say anything,” the official said about talking with faculty. “Every single one of the suicides [at Brandeis] has a backstory that I can’t tell you about.”

The official requested anonymity because he did not want to compromise student expectations and standards related to his counseling.

He asked for a network of communication between faculty and students similar to the ones that exist between students and professionally trained staff from the Division of Student Affairs and the Department of Community Living.

Psychological Counseling Center staff always accept the policies of confidentiality that prevent detailed communication with faculty about students. The PCC sees about 50 percent of the students in each graduating class and roughly 550 students per year.

“Students experience that kind of connection [between faculty and counselors] as threatening,” the official said.

Like all universities, Brandeis is forced to confront issues around suicide: It is the third leading cause of death for people between the ages 15 and 24.

“It never really fades” the official said, explaining the tragedy of a suicide. “One [suicide] is devastating. Two or three or four is horrifying,” the PCC official said.

At the faculty meeting, university President Fred Lawrence thanked Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer and the entire community for its caring and effective response to the suicide. He praised all administrators and the PCC for helping to prevent the constant fear of copycat cases after a suicide.

The PCC holds urgent care walk-in hours twice per day and has staff on call 24 hours per day via a phone answering service.

Professors asked a range of questions, including one about less obvious warning signs of suicidal students and another about why the PCC and all counseling centers have seen dramatic increases in the numbers of students coming to them in the past decade.

The PCC use rate has roughly doubled over recent years, the official said. Some students come to college already on medication for mental illness while others develop it once they enter college.

Society’s pressure to force students from a desire “to be a well-rounded citizen” into simply someone wanting a job is also a factor that has increased stress and pressure on adolescents, he said.

Addressing the economic recession and potential impacts on the PCC budget, the official said that its staff and support system has actually grown in recent years. The administration understands that it is not a department where funding can be cut, he said.

Lawrence was traveling in California on Feb. 15 and immediately flew home when he heard of Sommers’ suicide and arrived back at Brandeis the next day. He sent an e-mail to parents, informing them about the suicide and telling them to contact him or his Chief of Staff David Bunis, if they had any concerns.

“As parents, Kathy and I know that you have entrusted us with your children during their time at Brandeis. We take this trust as a sacred obligation,” Lawrence wrote on Feb. 16. “It is at times of tragedy like this that we discover just how strong and special this community is.”

Lawrence said that he received about 400 replies from parents to the e-mail.

At the faculty meeting, Lawrence echoed the message in his e-mail last month.

“The worst thing that can happen at this time is people [start] scurrying into their corners,” Lawrence said.