Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015...3:35 pm

Are we a suicide school?

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To students at the College of William and Mary, the word “suicide” carries a special weight. It is not simply Merriam-Webster’s “the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.” It is something that happens to classmates, hallmates, and friends. It is something that simultaneously rips our campus apart and pulls it together. It is an event that sparks activism, outrage, and cries of “one tribe, one family.” The College is known across the state of Virginia as a “suicide school” and the events of last year did not do much to help shed this reputation.

In the 2014-2015 school year, the multiple student deaths — particularly Paul Soutter ’17’s suicide — resulted in shock and outrage from the student body. Students and alumni wrote news articles, they wrote op-ed after op-ed after op-ed, and they organized events about suicide prevention and mental health; they told their stories and expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the counseling center, but an overarching thread through all the discourse was a call for change. Students were fed up with inadequate mental health services, the pressure to overachieve, and the stigma surrounding getting help.

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Suicide is the leading cause of death for college students. In the past, the Counseling Center struggled with visibility among the student body. In light of last year’s suicides, it has become more visible and also more criticized. After Soutter’s death — the eighth student death since 2010 — alumna Cassie Smith-Christmas ’06 wrote an article for the Washington Post’s education blog Grade Point about her brother’s experience with the College’s mental health services. She asserts that because of Ian Smith-Christmas ’11’s suicidal ideations, he was dismissed from the College as something of a liability. Although the College asserts that students are only removed from campus if their condition would really benefit from being away from the college environment, the critique that the school sees students with mental illness as a liability is one that is increasingly being leveled against the counseling center.

According to a 2010 Washington Post article, between 1969 and 2010 the College had 11 suicides. Since 2010 there have been eight student deaths. This increase has not helped the school’s reputation as a “suicide school” but it has gotten people talking more openly about the issue of suicide on campus. The College has increased mental health programming and is in the process of improving the counseling services available to students in need with the 24 hour ProtoCall hotline and the promise to hire a full-time psychiatrist, but many students still believe that the College is not doing enough for mental health.

As we’ve moved into a new school year, some of the discourse has died down, but many students are still dissatisfied with the College’s treatment of mental health issues. Check back later this week for an interview with Taylor Medley ’17 and Liz Wolfe ’18, who organized a recent protest — the Wren Sit-In for Mental Health — and learn more about what students are currently doing to push for better mental health services.

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