University suicide response examined through the years

Valentina Duque Bojanini

When walking into the atrium of Bobst Library, the history of NYU’s struggle with student deaths is inescapable. The golden, cage-like panels that cover the interior of the 12-story building were installed in 2012 to prevent students from jumping from the upper floors, and for some they serve as a constant reminder of the ongoing mental health challenges faced by students.

Seven students died during the 2003-04 school year, leaving the university stunned and the administration struggling to deal with a shocked student body. As recently as August of this year, NYU student deaths have continued to make headlines, earning the university a reputation of being a suicide school. With each death, administrators and university officials are left to decide how to address the NYU community.

Depending on the circumstances of the death, students will receive a university wide email regarding the tragedy and reminding them of available counseling services.

NYU spokesman John Beckman said the university does not have definitive policies regarding communications.

“We do not have one set practice that is repeated in every instance; while student deaths share a common aspect of tragedy and sorrow, the specifics and circumstances vary widely, and so we make the decisions carefully and on a case-by-case basis,” Beckman said. “We do not believe there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that would be successful.”

While a university wide email might not always be sent out, NYU will still notify professors, classmates and others who could be potentially impacted by the student’s death.

Beckman added that the university is mainly concerned with the safety of the entire NYU community. The Werther Effect, commonly referred to as the contagion effect, suggests that when suicides are given a lot of attention, those with suicidal thoughts are more likely to act on their impulses.  For this reason, the university does not allow campus memorials in cases of suicides and attempts to limit university communication.

Victor Schwartz, School of Medicine faculty member and former medical director of the NYU student mental health service, said while it is important to be careful of drawing a lot of attention to student deaths, it is still important to keep the needs of friends and family in mind.

“At the same time, we don’t want to appear cold and uncaring,” Schwartz said.  “I think the challenge is to be able to acknowledge that there is a loss, that there are friends and family that are in pain, while at the same time not over dramatizing or making this death seem appealing.”

School of Medicine professor Claude M. Chemtob said he disagrees with the idea of withholding information about suicides from the student body, saying instead we need to have an open discussion about suicide and mental health.

“Keeping people less than completely aware is a mistake,” Chemtob said. “My view is that when one of these things happens, you have to rally people to recognize we are a community, by informing them of the risks and the issues, and increasing the sense that we’re all responsible for one another.”

Chemtob said he believes the key to suicide prevention is creating a resilient community that provides support and is also educated on the characteristics of suicidal behavior.

He added that, although suicide rarely happens, it intensely impacts communities and it is important to continue to educate students and faculty on how to identify those with suicidal impulses and provide them with the necessary resources.

“We must create a culture for students around mutual taking care of each other,” Chemtob said. “On the other hand you have to actually teach them skills to recognize when they have to reach out to the student, or to adults who can help.”

The need for community is echoed by members of the student body. Steinhardt sophomore Taylor Gese said while living in New York provides unparalleled experiences, the sense of isolation can be hard to escape.

“Living in Greenwich Village at 18 is an experience you’d be crazy to pass up,” Gese said.  “That being said, New York is so lonely for some reason I’ve never been able to pinpoint.”

Tisch junior Aylah Donayre shares the sentiment that going to NYU can be a lonely experience, but she highlighted the support system the university can provide to students in times of need.

“The city environment can be very isolating and is not conducive [to] a community atmosphere,” Donayre said. “If you’re interested in finding that community within NYU all you have to do is be proactive about looking for it. The city is somewhere that I thrive but I know if it ever became too overwhelming all I would have to do is ask for help.”

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 25 print edition. Email Valentina Duque Bojanini at [email protected]

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