9 student deaths have USC trying to quell rumors in a delicate balancing act
The email arrived near midnight Saturday. USC President Carol Folt informed the campus community about a recent series of student deaths.
She said she wanted to keep the university informed but also clear up rumors and misinformation.
“People are searching for answers and information as we attempt to make sense of these terrible losses,” Folt said. “There is a great deal of speculation about the causes of these deaths and most are being attributed to suicide. This is not correct.”
Faced with the deaths of nine students since Aug. 24, USC administrators are engaged in a delicate balancing act as they notify students, attempt to quell rumors, offer mental health resources and also try to avoid triggering students who may be in the midst of a mental health crisis.
A campus of 47,500 students, USC experiences four to 15 student deaths in a typical school year, officials said. Last year, six were reported.
Officials have confirmed that three students this year died by suicide. In some cases, the cause of death is undetermined; in others, families did not want details disclosed, they said.
In a letter sent to students just after 10 p.m. Tuesday, top USC officials warned against the dangers of opioid use.
Universities don’t have rule books, nor is there any scientific research, about how to navigate addressing multiple student deaths and suicides, said Dr. Paul Nestadt, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatry professor. Officials are likely acting out of an abundance of caution so as not to prompt a suicide contagion, he said. The effect is defined by the federal Department of Health and Human Services as an increase in suicidal behavior following exposure to such a death within a family or peer group.
“They are in a bind for sure,” Nestadt said.
Student Body President Trenton Stone, a junior originally from Salt Lake City, said all eight members of his executive board, including himself, knew at least one of the people who had died over the last three months. The first death, of an 18-year-old freshman, was reported in late August, two days before classes began.
“It’s definitely been a really tough semester for us,” Stone said. “There’s a lot going on, and everyone’s asking the same question: What can we be doing?”
An outsider who previously ran the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Folt is the first woman to hold the post. She takes the helm as the private university is trying to recover from years of scandal.
University officials have sent at least five emails to students about the deaths. Emails shared with The Times showed the entire student body received notices on Sept. 4 and Nov. 9. Three were also sent to students in the same school as the deceased.
Winston Crisp, the university’s vice president for student affairs, said he and other administrators decided to move quickly, with as much transparency as possible, to quell rumors about the deaths, as well as to remind students that resources are available if they need help. But the lack of specifics about the deaths has prompted speculation among parents and students alike.
Crisp said that some students who had not known about the deaths said recent information and uncertainty on details have been emotionally triggering. Some families have expressed gratitude after receiving the emails. Others think that the details provided have made matters worse.
“Each time something happens, I get an email from the office of the president offering empty condolences,” said Morgan Spencer, a USC junior. “I would like to see more response from the new president’s office, figuring out why there have been at least three student suicides.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate among this age group increased 56% between 2007 and 2017, according to a CDC study published in October.
“We as a nation are in the midst of a suicide problem,” said Hopkins’ Nestadt, who said the number of suicides at USC this semester is in line with national statistics.
On Tuesday afternoon, 13 students were in the waiting area at the university’s counseling and mental health center. Approximately 30 counselors and two psychiatrists were on hand. The center works by appointment unless a student has an urgent need. Non-urgent appointments take place within 48 hours, a staff member said.
The staff member at the center said there are 45 counselors and four psychiatrists on staff. He said there’s been an increase in students seeking services since USC’s email addressing the recent deaths.
Jonathan Singer, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago and the president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Assn. of Suicidology, said that when officials notify students of deaths, they must ensure that there are enough resources on campus to meet the demand for mental health services.
Unlike high schoolers, who may be covered under their parents’ health insurance, college students often receive health services through the university itself. Even a small fraction of USC students seeking mental health care would likely overwhelm the counselors and other resources available, he said.
“You have to have the infrastructure in place, and they probably don’t,” Singer said. “What campus would?”
USC trustees approved far-reaching reforms aimed at correcting the insular leadership that failed to effectively handle several scandals over the past few years.
Sunday Smith, a student in the School of Cinematic Arts, said she and others have had trouble sleeping and focusing, unable to catch a break with school work and other demands. In the last two weeks, students have been notified of two deaths in the cinema school, she said.
At the end of a class last week, one teacher allowed students to talk about how they were coping with the deaths. Smith said sharing her feelings was a welcome release.
“Obviously you can’t move on if you can’t take the time to grieve,” Smith said. “There’s been a lot of death around me.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. A caller is connected to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed. The call is free and confidential.
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