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ORL, CPS, USG review next steps on mental health, PEESA calls for improvements

<h5>Murray Dodge Hall is an interfaith space that houses the Office of Religious Life and its many programs.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Murray Dodge Hall is an interfaith space that houses the Office of Religious Life and its many programs. 
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Content Warning: The following article includes mention of student death and suicide. University Counseling services are available at 609-258-3141, and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 988 or +1 (800) 273-TALK (8255). A Crisis Text Line is also available in the United States; text HOME to 741741. Students can contact residential college staff and the Office of Religious Life for other support and resources.

Two weeks after the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office released the completed autopsy report for the death of Misrach Ewunetie ’24, ruling it a suicide, the University continues to mourn while grappling with student mental health on campus. Ewunetie marks the most recent loss for the University, which suffered two additional undergraduate deaths in May 2022 — Jazz Chang ’23 and Justin Lim ’25 — as well as the death of a staff member in September.

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The Office of Religious Life (ORL), Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), and Undergraduate Student Government (USG) are each looking to expand mental health resources on campus. The University has made commitments to following through on suggestions to improve student wellbeing outlined by the Mental Health Resources Task Force, led by USG, Director of CPS Dr. Calvin Chin, and Vice President of Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun. 

On Dec. 16, Calhoun shared an update on the status of recommendations of the working group to explore mental health resources. Of the 31 recommendations, 20 were categorized as “completed (and ongoing),” 10 are “in progress,” and one is “under review.” The next update regarding these recommendations is expected in May 2023.

Student-led initiatives, such as the USG mental health taskforce, have also driven a recent push for expanded mental health programming on campus. 

“The tragedies of last year show that there is still a lot of work to be done to make Princeton a place where everyone can thrive,” wrote USG president-elect and chair of mental health taskforce Stephen Daniels ’24 in an email to The Daily Princetonian. “We will continue to use both qualitative and quantitative data including responses to this feedback form to advocate for expanding services to meet student needs.”

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Chin noted the unique difficulties that 2022 posed for the campus community. “We have had several campus tragedies over the past 6 months which have been devastating for the [U]niversity community,” he wrote. “It’s hard to compare from year-to-year, but this has certainly been a challenging year for everyone.”

Chin also outlined the work CPS has done in the wake of campus tragedies over the past year. “We reach out to students who were directly affected. We expand our drop-in availability and work with our campus partners to make sure students are aware of our services. And we provide supportive spaces for students to gather and grieve together,” he wrote.    

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Since 2018, demand from students for CPS services and appointments has increased by 19 percent, according to Chin. To meet this demand, CPS has hired short-term temporary counselors. “We have hired the equivalent of three additional counselors since the Fall,” Chin wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

Conversations surrounding mental health continue. Princeton Ethiopian and Eritrean Student Association (PEESA) Co-Presidents Joachim Ambaw ’24 and Faeven Mussie ’24 call for increased diversity among CPS staff.

Ambaw noted that this can help mental health resources better serve Black students and other students of color on campus. 

“Some Black students can't find therapists within CPS that are able to relate to them,” Ambaw said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “Finding somebody that they can relate to on an identity level can lead to better interactions and a better therapy process.”

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Following Ewunetie’s passing, PEESA has played an important role as the community mourns. The student group organized a Candlelight Vigil and provided other resources for members. 

Mussie described how the group came together to remember the life of a member of the PEESA community.

“The Eritrean Ethiopian community is a very, very tight knit community all over the world,” she said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “We always show up for each other, it’s in our culture to do so.”

Mussie expressed concern with the amount of information the University was sharing with students during the search for Ewunetie and the wait for the completed autopsy, which was released over two months after she was found dead on campus.

“I think the main frustration that we had, and students on campus too, was at the lack of information that we had when the case came out,” she said. “It was our frustration with not having any updates when it’s our safety on the line being on campus.”

A focus on ‘postvention’

Dr. Victor Schwartz, Senior Associate Dean for Wellness and Student Life at CUNY School of Medicine and longtime researcher studying higher education mental health, noted how the pandemic has reduced resources for universities everywhere. 

“It’s becom[ing] harder to find places to refer students who have long-term needs, and that’s put added pressure on the system,” Schwartz said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “This was made acutely worse on the college front when, during the pandemic, people realized that it was possible to do private practice on virtual platforms.”

Schwartz also commented on the many expectations students have of the universities they attend. “Students are looking to the school to be both their human services provider and to some extent, be their parent as well,” he said. “There is expectation, and maybe in some cases, there’s been over-promising what schools can provide or unrealistic expectations.”

Still, Schwartz noted the importance of effective suicide postvention — the provision of support and assistance from a University to its students in the campus healing process. In the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA) Postvention Guide, which Schwartz worked on, HEMHA outlines effective postvention protocols as those that “provide both immediate (i.e., within 72 hours of event) and long-term plans (e.g., anniversaries),” “secure campus safety,” and “address the complex mental health issues for individuals and groups that may arise after a student suicide.”

CPS has expanded its resources, continuing to increase access to counseling for students, according to Chin. Following Ewunetie’s passing, CPS launched the CPS Cares Line, which provides 24/7 access to counselors by phone and emerged as a recommendation from the Mental Health Workgroup last summer.

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Chin described how students can expect to see mental health resources on campus expanding over the next semester. “We will be sponsoring additional listening circles focused on healing from grief in the next several weeks,” he wrote. “[W]e continue to work on fulfilling the recommendations from the summer workgroup that met this summer on Mental Health Resources.”

Rev. Alison Boden GS ’70, Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel spoke to the ORL’s role in supporting mental health on campus after a community loss. The office held an initial gathering on Oct. 21 in Murray-Dodge Hall, immediately after Ewunetie’s body was located, and has organized ongoing programming as more information pertaining to her death became public.

“With the most recent information about Misrach’s passing we convened another gathering (Dec. 29) to support students who were impacted by the news,” Boden wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’

According to Boden, all chaplains have observed increased demand for pastoral counseling this year — interest that she anticipates will only ramp up once students return to campus for the spring semester. 

These services are available to all students, regardless of previous engagement with the ORL. Both one-on-one and group sessions are offered.

“We also do occasional mental health-themed programs or sponsor initiatives to support particular cohorts of students. Students tell us that our weekly and monthly meditation offerings are very helpful and healing for them, as well as our religious services,” Boden said. 

“I think there are more mental health challenges for students now than in my previous years at Princeton and that the pandemic is largely responsible … I’m reminded of the year after 9/11, when students (and others) had a similar uptick in mental health challenges,” Boden said.

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Dr. Madelyn Gould GS ’74, Irving Philips Professor of Epidemiology in Psychiatry at Columbia University, who has researched youth suicide prevention and strategies, noted that mental health resources extend beyond the limits of campus, as parents should have an active role in their children’s mental health as well. 

“There needs to be communication between the University and parents as well,” she said. “Parents need psychoeducation, if they’re not already getting it, with regard to the challenges that their children have and might be experiencing. They have a role in identifying these risk factors.”

Expanding on Schwartz’s research on postvention, Gould noted the importance of communication between the University and student body in coping with a campus tragedy. 

“The first thing, there has to be real open communication, and then for the University to demonstrate what changes or additions they’re making to services,” she said. “There’s a big endowment at all these schools, so it’s a matter of setting priorities.”

Tess Weinreich is an Assistant News Editor and Features contributor for the Prince.

Isabel Yip is a Head News Editor who typically covers University Affairs and student life.

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