A community in mourning

(Lillian Zeng | Daily Trojan)

Content warning: This article contains information regarding death and suicide. Students dealing with mental health concerns can walk into USC Student Health centers or contact the 24/7 phone line (213) 740-9355 for professional assistance.

“I want all of you here to know that you are loved, that you are seen, that you are heard, that you matter, that you belong, that you are not alone,” Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni told a crowd of 150 people gathered at Our Savior Parish late last month. 

Prayers, hymns and moments of silence filled every space in the room, as the community mourned the loss of a School of Cinematic Arts senior.  

On Sunday, Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman confirmed to the Daily Trojan that at least eight students have died in the last three months, compared to six during each of the last two academic years. Twelve students passed away during the 2016-17 academic year and four during the 2015-16 academic year.

Since the start of the year, the University community has been coping with these losses. 

On Saturday night, President Carol Folt and three other administrators addressed the high number of deaths this semester in a letter to the community.

“These student losses are devastating and heartbreaking for all of us,” they wrote. “People are searching for answers and information as we attempt to make sense of these terrible losses.”

Van Orman said that sending an email to the entire community was a change in strategy after speculation arose regarding the two most recent deaths.

“I think that the University leadership wanted to acknowledge to the community that knew that there had been two student deaths that we were trying to gather more information,” she said, adding that most of the deaths this semester have not been caused by suicide. “In these cases, we had no evidence that that was the case. And so to try to help kind of dispel some of the rumors and misinformation that was out there.”

While the University has not confirmed the nature of these deaths and some are currently being investigated, Van Orman said that three of the eight  have been caused by suicide. 

“We have no reason to think that the others were suicide,” Van Orman said.

Just two days before the start of classes in August, a freshman died on a freeway near campus. Following his death, the community was informed in an email from the University administration, urging students to seek guidance and support through several hotlines. 

Less than two weeks later, University administrators sent another campus-wide email about the death by suicide of a junior who majored in industrial and systems engineering who died by suicide in September. At the end of the email, the same hotlines and additional resources were listed.

The next night, a junior who majored in business of cinematic arts died near campus. That time, only a small portion of the campus received notice. One month later, two more students died. And just days before Trojan Family Weekend earlier this month, USC held the vigil in Our Savior Parish in honor of the SCA senior who died. 

“It’s not that we want to hide it, but we also don’t want to repeatedly send information to too many people who, maybe it isn’t in their community,” said Van Orman. “We want the people who are close to that person to have that information without the risk and the harm that it creates because of the large number of people in our community.”

But many students are still left with questions.

“It’s a conversation that should be universal, and I don’t think that the school [is] fazed at all and that’s super scary,” said Lauren Rothman, a junior majoring in film and television production, at the time. 

Dean of Religious Life Soni explained that there has been a rethinking of communication strategy due to the addition of a new communication team under the new University administration and wanting to make sure students’ safety and health is the priority.

“We’re in the process of evolving this and trying to figure out what the best way to provide the notifications is,” Van Orman added.

Additionally, Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said the emails are sent to different members of the community  in compliance with the wishes of each students’ families and out of concern for community wellness.

“This is, in my estimation, a very complicated and difficult issue,” Crisp said. “At the same time, we have grave concerns about the evolving nature of some of the mental health concerns.”

Preventing more harm

Although three of the deaths have been confirmed suicides, the increased risk of self-harm due to contagion after each death has led the administration to look at the issue from a public health perspective, Crisp said.

“We have to … look at the causes, and trying to get at some of the causes and pressures that young people are feeling today and are experiencing on campuses to try to improve on the prevention side of mental health,” he said.

According to psychiatrist Victor Schwartz, data on college student suicides is difficult to come by because there is no organized model for collection. Schwartz is the chief medical officer at the Jed Foundation, an organization USC partnered with in Spring 2018 that helps universities improve their mental health programs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that suicide rates for students ages 15 to 19 have increased 76% from 2007 to 2017. Additionally, suicide rates for people ages 20 to 24 increased 36% from 2000 to 2017. 

In 2017, suicides were the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once a campus has dealt with a death, there can be an increased risk of self-harm, known as contagion. Schwartz said universities experience suicide clusters, where news of a death impacts vulnerable individuals in a community who may or may not have known the victim. 

Campuses similar in size to USC typically see an estimated three suicides per year, Schwartz said. Because universities are self-contained communities, they are especially prone to contagion.

“While something like this is happening, it’s incumbent on the campus services to be reflective and thoughtful and active, [but] it’s also not necessarily the case that they’ve done anything wrong that resulted in this,” he said. “That said, they need to be vigilant and self-reflective and very careful in making sure there aren’t things that they could be doing that they haven’t.”

When a university experiences a cluster, widespread anxiety heightens, he said. This general sentiment may normalize suicidal thoughts or actions within a community.

Eloise Rollins-Fife, a junior majoring in cinema and media studies, said students have been paying close attention to these deaths. She does not feel like these events are normal.

“This isn’t a normal fact of university life … this is something that makes us feel crazy and there isn’t a dialogue between the administration and the students about what’s been going on,” she said. “And then it just feels like at any moment, another classmate could die.”

However, Van Orman said the University has to walk a fine line between informing the student community and avoiding the spread of misinformation.

“We share the information we have. We don’t want to hide anything,” Van Orman said. “But I also want to be really careful — I don’t want to say things that make people think I know when I don’t know.”

At a mental health forum hosted by Undergraduate Student Government last month, Soni explained that feelings of loneliness among students on campus, particularly when first-year students are transitioning into college life, can cause isolation and mental health challenges.

“The reality is that being in college is tough and can be a traumatic experience,” Soni said. “A normal college experience can be a traumatic experience, and no one ever tells us that.”

Seeking answers

Blake Wagner, a senior majoring in cinematic arts, critical studies, who lives with bipolar disorder, said he has felt frustrated with the campus’ wellness resources.

“It’s just deeply troubling to know that other students have gone through what I’ve gone through and not been given the resources that they need to survive,” Wagner said. “It just breaks my heart because I know that if it wasn’t for my friends and a few professors who really came through for me and offered support when I needed it, I don’t know if I’d still be in college right now. Because of my experiences suffering from mental health disorders, I don’t know if I’d be alive right now.”

Wagner also believes that listing resources at the bottom of these emails does not help students who do not feel comfortable using campus health facilities.

“It’s ridiculous to me that we’re getting emails with lists of contacts, people to reach out to,” Wagner said. “Ultimately, if you’ve had a bad experience with counseling services or you’ve been in crisis and USC hasn’t been there for you, now when you really need it, you’re not going to trust them.”

Lauren Rothman believes that while USC is trying to support students, it has room to improve its outreach.

“On a whole level as a university, I think they’re trying,” Rothman said. “I’m not proud of how [the University] has responded to these things when they’ve happened … but beyond the email about it and the email telling people to come to the vigil, I didn’t see any real response on a tangible level for somebody who didn’t know the person.”

Students at the School of Cinematic Arts have been some of the most active in demanding answers and voicing their concerns as two of the confirmed deaths have been of students at their school.

Krupa Naik, a junior majoring in cinema and media studies, said she will meet with SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley this week in hopes of planning a forum between students, faculty and administrators to discuss the handling of information regarding student deaths. 

She believes an open forum will allow students to air their concerns with how the announcements have been handled.

“Anger is a huge part of the grieving process, and it’s very easy to want to blame and point fingers, but it’s important to remember that we’re all on the same side and that nobody wants this,” Naik said. “But we don’t feel that as a student body. We don’t feel like the school was making an effort to make that known and to hear us.”

Andrea Klick, Tomás Mier, Kate Sequeira and Mia Speier contributed to this report.

Students dealing with mental health concerns can walk into USC Student Health centers or contact the 24/7 phone line (213) 740-9355 for professional assistance. Faculty and staff members can reach out to the Center for Work and Family Life at (213) 821-0800. Students, faculty and staff members concerned about a fellow Trojan can notify Trojans Care 4 Trojans online or by calling (213) 821-4710.

Correction: A previous version of this article reported that the two students who died by suicide in early September were both sophomores. They were juniors. The second student is a business of cinematic arts major, not a business administration major. The Daily Trojan regrets these errors.