Scully Hall dormitory assistant Melody Falter ’16 was sitting in her hall’s study room on Oct. 30 when she noticed a number of firefighters and public safety officers around the building.
When Falter went outside and asked for details, all she was told was that a student had been injured in Scully and was being treated at a hospital.
What happened, however, was not a mere injury: a student allegedly hanged himself on the roof of Scully.
Falter noted that several people reached out to her for details about the victim to ensure that it was not one of their friends after the incident.
“It was really sad and severing to me when there were people asking me, ‘Do you know if it was this person?’ Like, ‘Hey, I’m worried it might be my roommate. Can you tell me whether it was my roommate or not?’ ” she said.
She added that she was very affected by the incident.
“To be honest, every time I walk outside my dorm … look at that part of the building of Scully and walk past that entryway, I just think of that and it makes me sad. It makes me hurt for all the students on campus who are going through so much,” she said.
The percentage of undergraduate students seriously considering suicide at the University is slightly lower than the national average, according to data from the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment.
A sample of University undergraduates in spring 2014 reported that in the last 12 months, 7.5 percent had seriously considered suicide, 0.2 percent had attempted suicide, and 32.9 had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” The next assessment survey will be filled out in spring 2016, according toDirector of Counseling and Psychological Services Calvin Chin.
These numbers have remained fairly steady over the past decade, he said.
Chin added that the trends and numbers at the University follow those of the national reference group very closely. The national sample for the same time period saw 8.6 percent students seriously consider suicide, 1.4 percent attempt suicide and 33.2 percent feel so depressed that it was difficult to function.
There have been 24 undergraduates, seven graduates, seven professors and four staff members who have committed suicide at the University that have been reported in The Daily Princetonian since 1876.
The first reported suicide at the University was in 1888 and involved Reverend Edward Harrison Camp, Class of 1861. The most recent took place in early 2015.
Audrey Dantzlerward ’16 was found dead in her room on Jan. 12, the ‘Prince’ reported that day. According to a Feb. 4 article on NJ.com, Dantzlerward committed suicide by ingesting a lethal dose of over-the-counter sleeping pills.
Naimah Hakim ’16, who took GSS 397: Feminist Media Studies with Dantzlerward in spring 2014, said that she was devastated when she heard of what happened to Dantzlerward.
“I was upset because I felt like as a student who is a black woman, as someone who has often felt like I didn’t fit in here at Princeton, it felt like losing one of us,” she said. “It made it very difficult to focus on work for a period of time because grief is something that you deal with in those kind of moments.”
Hakim said that she attended the vigil for Dantzlerward and appreciated having that space in the immediate aftermath of her death.
“Something that Princeton students would really appreciate is having the sense that the University is actually taking the steps towards not just addressing the incident in its immediate short term sense but how on the long term, we are taking preventative steps and taking steps to reimagine life here, because it’s so much broader than any one event,” Hakim said.
She said that she criticized the fact that an email acknowledging the event was not sent out in a timely manner, so that as a community member, she did not feel adequately informed.
However, Hakim added that the response was quicker with the Scully suicide attempt.
Effortless Perfectionism: Triggers of Suicidal Thoughts on Campus
John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, noted that the prevalence of social perfectionism, particularly at Ivy League schools where there is much competition, can make students more prone to thinking about suicide.
He said that social perfectionism can be defined as this belief that others expect you to be perfect, but it doesn’t mean that the others actually do expect you to be perfect.
Draper added that social perfectionism can hold in a variety of contexts, ranging from grades to money, to achievement, to social standing at school, or even achieving a certain status in a fraternity or school politics.
“If there’s a perceived failure then the person may then believe that ‘I’ve thoroughly disappointed others and shamed,’” he said.“And when people feel that way sometimes they can feel very alone, very ashamed, sometimes believe mistakenly that there is no redeeming themselves, that there’s no hope for them to be able to achieve the kind of support that would be given to them if they did achieve these goals.”
Chin noted that he sees students every day who talk about their belief that they are not good enough, since everybody else seems to be doing well and they are the only ones struggling.
Hakim said the Mental Health Initiative Board, which she co-chairs, discussed social isolation and exclusivity of campus groups, which is particularly toxic for those that do not find a niche on campus, as factors that may contribute to suicidal thoughts.
“We have a campus culture that’s one where it’s difficult to talk about failure and making mistakes, where there’s a lot of anxiety that’s bred out of a culture like that’s super fast-paced, where people can’t bear idea of [not] being successful in everything that they do,” Hakim added.
Draper added that suicide could unsurprisingly be prevalent among faculty members too, since they, like students, experience competition and other factors relating to the campus atmosphere.
In particular, he said that the race for tenure and other forms of competition could yield high levels of anxiety and depression among faculty members, who should be given a safe space to talk anonymously about things bothering them.
According to a April 16, 2012‘Prince’ article, former senior lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese Antonio Calvo committed suicide four days after he was notified of the University’s decision to suspend him on the basis of improper conduct, effective immediately.
The family learned of his April 12, 2011, death two days after the event, but the University did not release a statement announcing the news until April 15, at 10 p.m., saying that Calvo had passed away and was on leave at the time.
Draper said that another feature that makes people prone to suicide are cognitive distortions.
“People who are often depressed or anxious have these cognitive distortions, where they have this … catastrophic way of looking at things ... that ‘I’m either perfect or I’m worthless,’ ” he said.
Draper added that people with suicidal tendencies tend to look at the future in ways that are only negative.
“They cannot see necessarily that other people don’t see them as a burden, that other people do care about them, that other people do see value in them,” he said. “All they can see is their worthlessness, essentially.”
Reflections of survivors: Thoughts during suicide attempts
Zhan Okuda-Lim ’15 said that he had severe suicidal ideation one night during his freshman spring when several issues relating to emotional and physical bullying bubbled to the surface.
“In the worst of it, there were some thoughts that repeated themselves over and over again in my mind, thoughts like ‘Will they remember me? Will people remember me if I were to take my own life and die — if I were to kill myself?’ ” he said. “It was a very surreal and strange mindset to be in as I recall it … It was a very, very frightening place to be.”
Okuda-Lim added that what was scariest at that moment was that he did not really know what resources and help were available on campus. Since he did not know about CPS and was unsure about whether his residential college adviser would listen, he called his parents.
“I remember being on the phone with my parents for I don’t know how many hours that night,” he said. “Their goal was to make me tired enough to go to sleep [and] sleep it off. The next morning, I woke up and felt really numb, felt really tired.”
He added that even though a friend referred him to CPS the next morning, he was reluctant to seek help because he was unsure of what it did.
Another student, who was granted anonymity in order to freely discuss the topic, took time off from the University due to mental health reasons and said that she briefly contemplated attempting suicide one late night in Nov. 2013.
She said that she had severe mental health struggles for a few years in a row at that time.
“Often times, when it comes to depression and other mental illnesses, the mental illness itself can skew your perspective of the world,” she said. “Mental illness can come inside your brain and twist it and say ‘No, you’re not worthy; no, you’re a bad student; no, you’re letting everyone down. And it can tell you that the world would be better off without you even if that’s not true.”
In a few minutes after seriously contemplating suicide, she reached out to a few people who surrounded her for the night and helped her through it.
“I called them for their sake,” she said. “I knew that it would be so difficult for them if I did kill myself. I knew that it would be painful for all the people who loved me. So for their sake, I reached out. And once I got past that moment, I realized that I do want to live for my own sake.”
She said that one of the most helpful resources to her that night was a staff member of a Christian group on campus, who simply kept listening to her rants and affirming her worth.
“She didn’t try to minimize my pain at all,” she explained. “She didn’t try to say ‘Oh, it’s okay, there are lots of people who go through this and they’re fine.’ She didn’t say that,” she explained. “She did not say ‘Just think positive thoughts and you’ll be fine.’ She didn’t say ‘Just stop thinking negative thoughts and you’ll be fine.’ She didn’t tell me that my emotions were invalid. But she did tell me to realize that … I do want to keep living.”
The Aftermath: Forced withdrawal vs. voluntary leaves of absence
The student said she decided to take time off from the University after the incident, explaining that she needed to have some time to take care of herself instead of pouring all her effort into dealing with life at the University.
However, she noted that the reaction from the University caused her to feel alienated.
“It felt as though they were trying to do everything they could to push me off campus as soon as they found out I was leaving for ‘mental health’ reasons,” she said. “I didn’t just feel unwanted; I felt despised.”
She added that the University should be using more compassionate language in communication with the students on leave for mental health reasons.
In Feb. 2012, a freshman, “W.P.”, filed a lawsuit against the University for allegedly being asked to withdraw from the University following a suicide attempt, according to a discrimination complaint filed with the United States District Court of New Jersey.
The student’s complaint listed 10 causes of action, including violations of components of the Fair Housing Act Amendments, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the complaint, the student noted that as he was leaving the hospital, he was informed that the University had evicted him from his dorm room, that he was prohibited from his classes and that he was banned from all areas of campus, according to an article in the ‘Prince’ published on Feb. 13, 2014.
Although W.P. was not forced to withdraw, the University notified him if he did not withdraw voluntarily, he would have to leave since he had missed enough of his classes to warrant withdrawal.
Chin said that the University has mandated leave only in three cases in the past decade. He explained students are often sent to a higher level of care, usually hospital. Many of them are discharged and return to campus immediately, while others choose to take a voluntary leave of absence, he added.
Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun added that the University policy of mandatory leave and assessing imminent threat to self or others is very individualized to ensure that the University has the resources to support the student.
“The importance of having such a policy in my mind is that it saves life,” Calhoun said. “It is upsetting to people, but the reason we assess is because it saves lives. It helps in many cases for individuals to address important health and mental health issues. The goal is not punitive, it is restorative.”
Calhoun said that there is no formula to assess whether a student is at imminent risk or not, and that the only goal of the administration is to get students the help they need.
Ameliorating Campus Climate
AnApril 15, 1993‘Prince’ columnthat waswritten anonymouslyby a suicide survivor argued that the silence around the University campus needs to be broken.
“The silence originates from this atmosphere of intimidation that is created when we allow ourselves to be too connected with our image,” the article read.“Through our individualistic natures, a vicious cycle is created by not speaking and thereby not giving others the opportunity to speak.”
Draper said that making the campus community a judgment-free zone to talk about what is bothering people at the University will help alleviate feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
“The burden isn’t just on sending people to the counseling center because quite frankly, where problems typically are first discussed are between friends and between loved ones, and not at a counseling center,” he said.
He added that it is important for friends and loved ones to know what to do, and that the University should be involved in more community-based efforts to make the community more emotionally well off.
Hakim said that the Mental Health Initiative Board would like to see the University calendar modified to increase break time for students to reduce prevalent stress.
“There’s a lot that we wish were different in terms of University policy,” she said. “The work that we do is work that is not overnight. It’s work that is long term. And though we have seen some very meaningful culture changes, there’s a lot left to do.”
Calhoun said that the University needs to be proactive and diligent in the support it offers students as they deal with any crises or individual emergencies they feel.
“My stance is that one is too many, and our approach should be from that stance,” she said.
She noted the importance of community members in suicide prevention, saying that we, as a community, have a responsibility to know what the resources are and to be accessible to students whether they are in distress or not.
She added that while she does not have the responsibility or training to counsel, she has the responsibility to be a resource.
“Suicide prevention is really everybody’s business. It should not just left to professionals — we should all take responsibility,” Draper said.