A recent student suicide in an upperclass residence hall at George Washington University is putting a renewed focus on mental health support. On campus, members of the community are reeling from the tragic incident and looking for ways to prevent this from happening again.
The Office of the Medical Examiner confirmed to The Wash that the 21-year-old student, whose name will not be published out of respect for the family, died by suicide on September 13 at Guthridge Hall, an F Street dorm that houses roughly 250 students.
In a statement released to the university’s faculty and students, university President Mark Wrighton and Vice Provost for Dean of Students Colette Coleman said, “the loss of one of our own will be felt by many across the GW community.” A spokesperson for the university would not comment further beyond that which was expressed in the statement.
While the community hasn’t dealt with the shock of an on-campus student suicide since 2014, the start of the school year brings untold anxiety and pressure, especially for an ambitious and academically strong student body. As a result, there are those who are looking for improvements to the system.
Alexander Erickson, a member of GW’s 47-member Student Association Senate, said faculty members should be more proactive in reaching out to students who are falling through the cracks.
“I would say this is a take-notice moment for the faculty, honestly,” Erickson, 26, said.
Sherry Molock, an associate professor of clinical psychology at GW, said that while the university has done better to address mental health care in recent years, there remains a lot that can be done to better their systems; the university should implement universal mental health screenings to catch student vulnerabilities earlier, she said.
“One of the things that institutions can do really well, ironically, is track challenged students because it’s a closed system,” Molock, a 25-year faculty member, said. “Often we forget the most vulnerable students are not gonna have the most adaptive coping skills,” she added.
Even if mental health professionals increase screenings and check-ins, mental health care is further complicated by its institutional distance from other types of health care.
Jodi Frey, a mental health scholar and a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, said that young people contemplating suicide are often aware of the resources available to them, but are unable to access them because of administrative or bureaucratic barriers. Frey describes the American mental health system as “broken” and contends that it is not equipped to handle ongoing, chronic conditions like depression and schizophrenia.
“It’s so disconnected from all of our care systems that it’s so easily neglected and underfunded and stigmatized,” Frey said.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Washington, D.C. has the lowest overall suicide rate among any state in the country, but has still reported 108 suicides among people aged 15 to 24 since 1999, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, the chief medical officer for the non-profit suicide prevention organization The Jed Foundation (JED), said universities should prioritize hiring counselors representative of their student population. She also notes that suicide prevention is a group ordeal that requires the investment of all stakeholders.
“When it comes to suicide prevention, we all play a part in the community,” Erickson-Schroth said in an email to The Wash. “It is our responsibility to be there for each other and for ourselves.”
The Wash reached out to six universities in the D.C. area to ascertain the frequency of suicides on their campuses, but did not receive a comment from any of them in time for publication.
Above all, the recent tragedy at GW is poised to impact the community for weeks and months to come, said Frey. Institutional hierarchies are fragile and responsive to the trauma of their peers, especially after a pandemic that left care systems tired and dilapidated.
“Going through something like this changes people and changes organizations,” Frey said. “It changes college campuses. We don’t just revert back to how we were.”
Erickson said GW students look out for and care for each other, which makes their community more welcoming to students from all over the country. It may take some time to recover from the shock of losing one of their own, but the school’s closeness is poised to help them through this tough time.
“I think we’re all mostly committed to just making the lives easier for everybody around us,” Erickson said.