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Confronting a campus crisis
The deaths of 5 NC Point out students seem the alarm for psychological well being care and suicide prevention. Is the university undertaking sufficient?
Editor’s note: This story contains reporting about suicides, a topic that will be disturbing to some readers.
A task force report released by N.C. State University on Tuesday recommends sweeping changes affecting every aspect of campus life following recent student suicides and other deaths.
The 89-page report from the Student Mental Health Task Force comes after four student deaths by suicide last semester and one this month. The Division of Academic and Student Affairs created the task force last November.
The report seeks broad changes designed to create a “culture of care” in and around the Raleigh campus. Recommendations cover students’ coursework, basic needs like food and housing and their sense of belonging on the campus of roughly 34,000 students.
“The Task Force recognizes there are several short-term actions that can help improve mental health support on campus,” the report’s introduction reads. “However, a number of recommended initiatives will take sustained, ongoing commitment over time to help achieve the mental health outcomes we strive for at NC State.”
The full report is available to read at the university’s wellness website at wellness.ncsu.edu/updates.
Lisa Zapata, senior associate vice chancellor, is co-chair of the task force and previously told The News & Observer that it would lead to “significant revisions” of N.C. State policies.
“The work was not done linearly, as the need was too urgent,” the report reads.
Suicides are an ‘ongoing challenge’
Ten N.C. State students are among the 878 known deaths by suicide in North Carolina of people ages 15 to 24 between 2016 and 2020, the report states.
The university has averaged three student deaths by suicide per year from 2018 to 2022, with one of the years having seven student suicides, it states.
The report says half of all N.C. State students regularly experienced “moderate psychological distress” during the 2021-22 academic year, and just over 1 in 4 had a high suicide screening score, according to the American College’s National College Health Assessment.
Among the task force’s long-term recommendations are “means restrictions” aimed at preventing suicides on and around campus.
Examples include securing rooftops, bridges and parking lots with barriers and alarms; installing breakaway closet rods in dorms and limited weight-bearing shower components; and holding drug take-back programs, the report states.
At least three suicides this school year occurred among engineering students, The N&O reported this month.
School officials told The N&O there are now two counselors embedded on Centennial Campus, where the engineering school is housed. The school has also scheduled Mental Health First Aid training for faculty and staff.
The report outlines overarching action items the task force calls “fundamental” to improving student mental health.
▪ Forming implementation teams immediately to continue the task force’s work.
▪ Continually assessing the effectiveness of mental health services and programs. Using data to “drive evidence-based decision-making to inform and improve policies, programs, services, and all efforts to support student mental health.”
▪ Continuing to engage students and staff in conversations about mental health by holding more listening sessions over the spring semester for students, faculty and staff to gather input.
▪ Integrating campus-level diversity, equity, inclusion and mental health planning.
▪ Continuing to find ways to increase awareness of resources and to “provide ongoing communications that encourage healthy behaviors, mental health and overall well-being.”
Examples of recommendations
The report’s executive summary recommends short- and long-term efforts based on student feedback that could be put in place at the institutional and classroom levels.
▪ Creating a Dean of Students role. “NC State is the only institution in the UNC System without a Dean of Students,” the report states.
▪ Re-examining academic expectations to incorporate “reasonable flexibility” and support student mental health. This follows students’ complaints complained of inflexible deadlines, rigid coursework expectations and scholarship or funding requirements that bring extra stress.
▪ In the short-term, N.C. State should schedule Wellness Days each semester in advance and require that no exams or assignments be held or due that day or the next day.
▪ Relieving financial stress for students, particularly graduate students who are paid teaching assistants or resident advisers, or graduate students who are self-funded or who receive low stipends. The report cited a response to an online survey by a graduate student who demanded that they be paid more money — “not just enough to make us not eligible for food stamps anymore, but enough to live outside the walls of the academy.”
▪ Implementing mental health screening for students that is widely available.
Student speaks out to City Council
Earlier Tuesday, before the report was released, an N.C. State graduate student spoke before the Raleigh City Council about the issues facing the university. Benjamin Pulgar-Guzman said the five N.C. State University students who died by suicide this school year might be alive today if the university did more to address a mental health crisis.
“I stand here before you with five of my peers underneath the city when they should be experiencing their first kiss, the heat of the sun and the embrace of their parents,” said Pulgar-Guzman, a PhD sociology student.
Pulgar-Guzman criticized the university for “initiative after initiative, Band-aid after Band-aid on a gaping wound” that he said has failed to effectively address a mental health crisis that has led to student suicides.
“The Student Mental Health Task Force has been convening in the wake of a push for broader accountability and responsibility following the first three deaths, which seemingly occurred in silence,” Pulgar-Guzman said during the public comments part of the meeting.
Specifically, he called out N.C. State’s delay in forming a mental health task force “many deaths too late” and for not yet releasing a report. The report was released later Tuesday with the task force noting the urgency of identifying short- and long-term recommendations.
“It is important to note that given the urgency of creating recommendations and identifying ways to support the mental health of our students, the Task Force did not discuss the pros and cons of these recommendations,” the report says. “The work of researching, evaluating, determining viability, and potentially implementing the recommendations must begin immediately following the work of the Task Force.”
Pulgar-Guzman cited statistics from a report by UNC’s Mental Health Task Force, which was formed in the spring of 2018 after a spate of student suicides and released a report in 2019 on the mental well-being of students and suicide risk.
Later in the meeting, Council member Mary Black said she was touched by the student’s statement.
“It doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” she said. “I lost my father to suicide at a very young age so it is really deeply personal to me. And it is something I am really going to be focusing on and taking up over the next few months.”
Staff writer Anna Johnson contributed to this report.
This story was initially published February 21, 2023, 3:02 PM.