A look into the ways Columbia is responding to student mental health concerns
By Caroline Hurley
Someone recently asked me what the hardest thing I have ever had to accomplish was. Without hesitating, I responded with, “Surviving freshman year of college.” The 2015-2016 school year was undoubtedly the most challenging time in my life to date. I spent most of that first semester napping in my dorm room and isolating myself, and came home for Christmas to deliver the news to my parents that I was transferring. Homesickness, culture-shock, imposter syndrome, adjustment issues, loneliness – call it what you want, but I’ll just go ahead and call it “depression,” because that’s what it was.
And even though at the time I thought nobody understood how I felt, my situation was not at all unique. Most students will experience similar feelings at some point during their time here. Recently, these issues of depression and mental health on Columbia’s campus have taken center stage in the wake of seven student deaths in the last academic year alone. Three students died in January, and one student died in each of the months of September, October, November and December.
Identifying the Treatment
Columbia has seen seven student deaths since September 2016. Some have referred to the crisis as a “suicide cluster,” or when a high number of suicides occurs in a geographically and temporally close space. Dr. Madelyn Gould, a Professor of Epidemiology in Psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center is one of the leading researchers on suicide contagion among teens and college students. She believes questions of classification of Columbia’s crisis are entirely unnecessary.
“I think it’s not necessary to try to classify a student death as a ‘cluster’ in order to intervene . You don’t need to classify it. One death is enough for a university to want to respond to the needs of students. Really, no deaths – you want to respond to the needs of students before anything happens,” she says in a recent interview.
These tragedies have left students and administrators alike searching for answers and asking how our community could have possibly fallen so short in these seven cases. Many have been quick to blame Columbia’s infamous “stress culture,” such as the New York Post, who in a February 2nd article on the student deaths found fault with “fiercely competitive academics and inadequate campus counseling programs.”
This impulse to retroactively identify and remedy problems in a community in the wake of suicide tragedies is common, says Dr. Victor Schwartz. “When a campus is facing a series of challenges like this, it’s not unusual for everyone to second guess everything,” he says.
“When a campus goes through [these tragedies] it really is useful to evaluate all your systems and services when you’re reacting reflexively. But it is not always useful to change things just to change things.”
Dr. Schwartz is the Chief Medical Officer at the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that works to promote mental health advocacy and reduce suicide rates. “Our primary focus is college campuses but we work in the high school, teen, young adult arena to provide mental health services,” says Schwartz in a recent conversation. The JED Foundation, based in New York City, was founded in 2000 by Columbia alumni Phil ’63 CC and Donna ’65 GS Satow. It is named after their youngest son, Jed Satow, who committed suicide in 1998 while a freshman at the University of Arizona. Phil Satow is now a special adviser to Dean of Columbia College, James Valentini, according to a recent email from the dean.
As far as the concrete changes Columbia has made so far in response to the student suicides and mental health concerns in general, all Columbia College staff members have received gatekeeper, which is supposed to train people to be able to recognize at risk individuals. Of this new training, Dr. Schwartz says, “As a general thought it’s definitely valuable to train as many people to notice students who are struggling.”
Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg has continued meeting with the Mental Health Task Force, and recently released a letter on February 2nd detailing the concrete steps the Office of University Life has taken and will continue to take to address mental health concerns. One of the main new projects for the office, according to VP Goldberg’s letter, is a “mental health week” this spring to raise awareness of resources that the office says are “used in large numbers.”
Additionally, the University Senate Student Affairs Committee released
the “data-driven recommendations” that they sent to President Bollinger. One of their recommendations that was different from the Office of University Life was for President Bollinger to be more active and visible in facing this crisis, especially when it comes to undergraduates.
“It is critical for students to hear more often from President Bollinger, especially in times struggle for the community, as he is seen by students as our chief University leader and provides vision for our campus community in ways that other offices cannot,” they wrote in their report. Currently, notifications of student death are sent by email from the dean of the student’s college.
But Schwartz still cautions against reactionary policy changes, as well as thinking Columbia is experiencing a unique crisis in its recent suicide increase.
“While any student death is problem, there is an assumption being made that Columbia is an outlier. But it’s not clear that Columbia sits outside other schools [in terms of suicide rates]. It’s not statistically outside what you would expect for colleges over a ten year period,” he says.
To illustrate his point, Dr. Schwartz points to recent suicide clusters at Tulane University, Appalachian State University, and the University of Pennsylvania. In November, Penn saw its twelfth suicide in under four years. Because of the perception of high stress levels at Ivy League universities, it can be easy to conceptualize this as an “Ivy League problem.” But Tulane saw seven student deaths in the 2014-2015 academic year, the same number that Columbia has experienced this year. Also in the 2014-2015 academic year, Appalachian State saw nine student deaths, three of which were officially ruled suicides.
While any student death is problem, there is an assumption being made that Columbia is an outlier. But it’s not clear that Columbia sits outside other schools [in terms of suicide rates]. It’s not statistically outside what you would expect for colleges over a ten year period
“It’s not 100% clear that what is going on at Columbia is unique in Columbia. There have been other suicide clusters at elite colleges and non-elite colleges.”
Dr. Schwartz does point out that it is hard to quantify suicide rates among college students because little data has been compiled on the subject, but there is enough data to determine that Columbia is not alone in seeing a high suicide rate in a year.
Permitted to Have Fun
But even though the recent student death tragedies may not put Columbia statistically above average, this answer does not seem to satisfy when it comes to talking about our peers, ourselves, and the struggles students are facing here. Columbia students often talk about the stress culture that exists on campus – a Spectator feature piece that ran last April, titled “Are Columbia students the most stressed in the Ivy League?” hypothesized that Columbia’s rigorous course load, Core Curriculum, cutthroat competitive attitude, and the administration’s supposed “War on Fun” all lead to Columbia students being the most stressed-out in the Ivy League.
Dean Grabiner, Barnard College Dean of First Years and of Academic Assistance, believes that much of the stress culture comes from what students bring with them as first years, though she does stress that she is speaking only to her knowledge of Barnard and not Columbia.
“People go to high schools where they’ve worked hard and they have focused on a lot of their achievements and been in a lot of clubs and had to have had a high GPA in order to get into a college such as this, and it’s hard to turn off that high level when you get to college and everyone’s like, just calm down, just focus on learning. To just turn that off like a light switch is not something that’s easy,” says Dean Grabiner.
Dean Cristen Kromm, of Undergraduate Student Life, echoes Grabiner’s point about the difficulty of the First-Year transition. “I think there is something very real when it’s a lot of students who have always been able to do the things that they wanted,” she says, referring to the typically high-achieving students who matriculate to Columbia each year. Suddenly when students are not able to do everything they did in high school, or struggle with academics for the first time, it becomes difficult to enjoy their time here. And if they were anticipating the best four years of their lives, the struggle is all the more jarring.
“There is something that we all should be talking about in terms of what impact that has,” says Kromm, referring to this First-Year transition experience.
She says that “the average everyday conversation is not about how fun it is” here, and that a “culture that permits itself to have fun” would likely improve student perceptions of stress on campus.
Dean Grabiner continues, “If you’re the first in your family to go to college and you’ve worked really hard to get here, you can find that you feel a lot of pressure and feel like you’re supposed to be happy and supposed to be successful. If other people in your family have been to college, they may look back on it with great joy and rose-colored glasses and say, ‘oh those were the best years of my life,’ forgetting this part of it. Forgetting the part of it where it’s hard and the part of it where you’re not happy yet.”
Aside from the First-Year transition, other factors contribute to stress levels that permeate all four years of life at Columbia. Dean Kromm wishes students would allow themselves to have more fun. She says that “the average everyday conversation is not about how fun it is” here, and that a “culture that permits itself to have fun” would likely improve student perceptions of stress on campus.
But are Columbia students really the “most stressed in the Ivy League”? There are no statistics to definitively say one way or the other, and as noted in Spectator’s article, the number of factors that contribute to student stress level are wide-ranging. Having the most strained students in the Ivy League is certainly not a coveted title by any means, and wanting to designate it to Columbia is often seen as contributing to the problem. Students bragging about who has more tests and papers, and who got less sleep creates a culture that, in a twisted way, rewards these harmful self-care practices.
Dean Kromm does not believe it is correct to say that Columbia students experience the most stress in the Ivy League. At meetings with her colleagues from the other seven Ivy League schools and Stanford, Dean Kromm says that the conversations they are having are the same in regards to the amount of pressure their respective students are feeling.
Speaking about this pressure, Kromm says, “I think it manifests itself in different ways, but when we compare ourselves to other very high achieving, self-directed kinds of students, again its experienced differently, but it’s similar.” For example, she says, space is something that Columbia students experience differently, without the sprawling lawns and large student houses of Cornell or Dartmouth, so there is less room for activities and relaxing.
When it comes to the crisis Columbia is currently experiencing, Dr. Schwartz does not think the stress culture can be pointed to as the cause. In fact, in a February 2016 article for Psychiatric Times, Dr. Schwartz cautions against oversimplifying the causes of suicide. But of the relation between suicide rate and stress that many on Columbia’s campus are currently drawing, Schwartz says that it “feels intuitively compelling to say the stress is what’s challenging people, and there may be levels that are unhealthy, but it’s not so clear that’s what’s leading [to the crisis],” says Dr. Schwartz. “It turns out when you look at undergrads [sic], academic stress and failure are relatively infrequent signs of suicidal behavior.”
Regardless of whether or not stress culture has contributed to the recent student deaths, students still want to see changes in how Columbia addresses student mental health concerns. Ana Kioko, CC ‘19, is well-aware that the crisis at Columbia is not a unique occurrence. Kioko is from Philadelphia and lost a friend at the University of Pennsylvania to suicide. Just because what Columbia is experiencing is not unique, and stress may not contribute to it, is not reason enough to disregard student concerns, she says.
“I don’t think students are expecting CPS (Counseling and
Psychological Services) to have answers to all mental health issues, but they’re also not communicating to us how they are working to actively try to change things,” Kioko says, adding, “I don’t know if I would go to CPS if I had a problem. I might just go home.” CPS representatives declined to comment for this story, citing “patient care” as the “primary focus of the staff” at this time.
This is not to say Columbia has been unresponsive in the wake of student deaths. In addition to the gatekeeper training and mental health task force set up by Dean Valentini, the Offce of Undergraduate Student Life is increasing programming to hopefully get students more involved and to help them enjoy their time here. This year, Undergraduate Student Life will host a concert to coincide with the annual “Surf and Turf” night on the lawns, along with increasing programming that they have already been doing, like study breaks in Lerner.
But programming, working to decrease student stress, and increasing counseling resources can only be so helpful. Eventually, it comes down to recognizing a need for help. This can be difficult as stigmas abound about what mental health treatment looks like, especially on a campus where many students are high-achieving and may not have ever faced mental health issues before. Dean Grabiner recognizes this aspect of the community, and says, “Part of what I try to do is normalize the idea of seeking help,” especially in her work with First-Year students.
Dr. Gould emphasizes seeking help as the most important step, but acknowledges that it can also be the most dif cult thing for students to do.
“The main thing that I really want to emphasize is that there is help for extreme distress and anxiety, and that I would hope that friends could recognize it in friends, or in themselves, and talk to someone they trust about it. Recognize that you can get better. If it is your first time experiencing these feelings, it’s really hard to even appreciate that you can be better with help.”
Like Dr. Gould, Dr. Schwartz also highlights the crucial role that friends can play in encouraging someone who is overwhelmed to seek help. “Students don’t need to be mental health experts to recognize when someone is having difficulties. Either they’re telling you or you get a sense that something has changed. Really the simple thing is to look for change.” According to both Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Gould, changes to look for include not sleeping, not keeping up personal care and hygiene habits, increased drinking, social withdrawal, or pressured speech.
Students don’t need to be mental health experts to recognize when someone is having difficulties
He adds that it might feel awkward or difficult to bring up mental health with a friend, but that it ultimately shows care; “I think the other big impediment is that they’re uncertain – they don’t want to brooch the subject. It’s really important for students on campus to know about the resources available to them.”
Outside of Columbia, there are resources available to those in need 24/7. The national Suicide Prevention number is 1-(800)-273-8255, and is available all hours of the day. In an age where many people prefer texting to talking on the phone, there are crisis mental health text services available. To access, text “CONNECT” to 741741.
Additionally, resources specific to New York City are plentiful and just a text message away. NYC Well is another 24/7 crisis support service, accessible at 1-(888)-692-9355 or by texting “WELL” to 65173.