Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
I recall exactly where I was: halfway down the steps from Kent Hall to Low Beach, approaching the iconic Alma Mater statue. It was eight-o’clock, and the lights illuminated College Walk ahead of me. Everything felt quieter than usual.
I received a text before reading the email. “You haven’t heard?” my friend sent before continuing to type, “A student committed suicide.”
As a member of Columbia’s student newspaper, I’d heard story after story of past student suicides. I’d listened to other students recall certain years filled with tragedy after tragedy, leading to the numbing of cookie-cutter emails sent out by the administration responding to these devastating events. I remember how my stomach dropped when I read the first four words of the email sent out by our school’s Dean: “With a heavy heart….”
That night, the entire student body would have heard the news via email. That night, Columbia opened walk-in counseling hours at our psychological services. Those who knew the student would mourn. Those who didn’t would also mourn.
With the rise of mental illness, the rise of stress culture, and the rise of suicide rates at many universities, we must consider what happens after tragedy: How does a community respond? How should a community respond?
The way students mourned varied. Many students kept to themselves in their rooms. Some went about business as usual, trying to carry on as if nothing had happened. Ordinarily, Thursday nights were a night of freedom, of joy, of release because many students don’t have Friday class. Instead of letting go, I sat in my room and reflected. I wondered, I cried, I called my parents, and I mourned.
Although I had never met the student personally, many of my closest friends knew him. He lived on the same floor as one of my best friends, who described how the students living on that floor avoided the general area of his living space after the tragedy. Many people expressed sadness because it reminded them of how ruthless our environment was. We mourned for our lost student, and we mourn for the future ones we will lose if no change comes.
I was not only upset, but also angry. I was angry that this continues to happen, that the administration responds with the same hollow words, somehow expecting different results. I was angry that I could one day become numb to this. At least now I could fully feel and experience the grief. I dread the day this becomes normalized.
I was also angry because of how our greater community — our city — responded. According to my friends living in the same building that the student did, reporters from The New York Post found their way into the building — somehow gaining access past the security desk — and began questioning residents. This tragedy was becoming sensationalized. The published article disclosed intimate details about the tragedy that the stale administrative email had avoided. Any sense of respect and privacy was completely obliterated.
The way our student body handled this tragedy, however, was beautiful. In our class Facebook group, someone created a document for others to share their thoughts with the student’s parents. The post describing the project received over one hundred reactions, and the document itself is flooded with memories of the student. Over a hundred students took the time to reflect, to express their love, to celebrate the student we lost. Many others addressed their comments to the parents themselves. The gesture was one I will never forget.
This leads to my second question: How should a community respond to this tragedy? We must reach out to one another and check in. We must hold one another when necessary. We must react from a place of genuine care.
I find it heartwarming that students are finding ways to be there for each other that are not only thoughtful but also effective. More and more, student journalists address the topic of mental health, creating space for meaningful conversations and a deeper understanding. Our community is what brings us hope.
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