Some Thoughts About Mental Health At Columbia
Written by Bwog Staff
Columbia has experienced a rash of suicides in the past four months. The crisis has made news in outlets from the New York Post to Gothamist. The suicides are shocking in their proximity, but the culture of overwhelming stress, competition, exhaustion, and hopelessness that contributed to them isn’t news to students. CC student Julien Reiman shares his thoughts, from the very personal to the broadly optimistic. Additional reporting by senior staffer Sarah Dahl.
I was in my Broadway dorm on December 18th when Public Safety found the body of Mounia Abousaid in the room next to mine. Through my door, I heard an officer call the NYPD: “We have a student death.” I rushed out to a friend’s spare bed, and brushed past eight police officers. One at the doorway of Mounia’s room said to a colleague, “Yeah, she wrote letters and everything.”
I didn’t fall asleep that night. I did not know Mounia, and I will never understand her experience navigating Columbia College as a queer student of color. But lying awake, I felt a sameness with her. Passive thoughts of suicide have grazed my mind in my two years at Columbia. I have thought about it in Butler, for instance, as I’ve run my fingers through my sweaty forehead, and in bed during sleepless nights when all I can think about is my GPA or a cover letter or an exam or my peers who always seem superior. Until December 18th, I never told anyone these thoughts. What if I had taken a step further? What if other Columbians, plagued by the same thoughts, did the same? If Mounia did, we all could. Amid my grief, I held a small hope that her death would help Columbia talk about suicide more honestly. A hope that in discussion, we could prevent this from happening again.
Grief turned to shock at 8am when I read an e-mail sent to Columbia College. We all read it, more of a memo than a remembrance, notifying us of her death but omitting mention of her suicide. Psychological studies show that discussing and reporting suicide does not increase the prevalence of suicide ideation within a community. MS Gould writes in “Evaluating Iatrogenic Risk of Youth Suicide Screening Programs” (2005) that those pondering suicide become “less distressed” after acknowledging self-harm as a problem in a social group. Why had Columbia hidden her means of death? I remembered that Columbia’s CommonApp was due January 1. Could the e-mail be a PR move?
Shock turned to anger when I returned to Broadway that afternoon. My floor reeked of disinfectant bleach. The smell emanated from the room next to mine–Mounia’s room–now being cleaned by CU officers. Columbia had tried to cover the memory of this death as it tries to cover up its own rotten lack of regard for its students, all of whom were promised in their acceptance letters that they would nurtured by New York’s oldest and most decorated institution. Instead we constantly find ourselves lost and drowning in the Columbia Blue.
To blame Columbia is an oversimplification. Firstly, reporting suicide is difficult. It was difficult to write this article: if details of self-harm sensationalize a death, they can increase suicidal ideation in their readers. According to a campus official, when a member of Columbia University dies, a committee of deans and mental health professionals compose a letter with the goal of ensuring that the e-mail lacks a trigger. They leave final editing to the family of the deceased, as they did with Mounia. Secondly, beyond writing the letter, Columbia creates real accommodations for its students. Within hours of the death, I received e-mails from the head of CU Student Wellness, Student Advising, and Housing, offering extensions on exams and a temporary dorm in East Campus. They offered extended hours with Counseling and Psychological Services, which is one of the oldest and most well-funded mental health support organizations on any American college campus.
Columbia showed support immediately after Mounia’s suicide, but this University has enacted no concrete change in its housing system or its mental health resources, even in the wake of at least four more suicides in January, February, and March. I and much of Columbia are realizing that reactionary outreach is not enough. We walk through campus feeling isolated, as if our Global University forgot about us.
My friend Helen Chen (CC ‘17) knows this isolation more than most. Her peers know her as a woman of overflowing empathy and support. Last spring, while helping her classmates through different mental health issues, her close friend in BC died of suicide. She couldn’t escape her stress, exhaustion, and pain. “I was in the room during suicide attempts [and] running between hospitals,” she told me. Campus stress culture and an apathetic administration worsened the situation.
Helen believes that Columbia’s response to suicide fails to adequately address the pain felt by victims and their peers. Impersonal emails sent after a student’s death, for example, have the effect of gaslighting–by gliding over the emotional intensity of a death, they make readers feel as if they’re overreacting. These memos, in other words, imply that there is no room for our pain in the hustle-bustle of this superstructured university.
Helen also noted the disparity I experienced: the short burst of compassion shown by the administration to students directly impacted by the suicide–like me last December–is not extended to critically ill students themselves. Instead, those struggling with depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation are placed in a logistical administrative cogwork more concerned with legal issues surrounding mental health than the wellbeing of students themselves. Helen said that in a legal statement, ResLife “told my friend, who attempted [suicide] multiple times last semester, as she was leaving [for medical leave] that she was ‘a burden to our community.’”
Columbia’s administration knows the legal aspects of student death, but it is unable to interact with suffering students in a way that is positive and non-triggering. For example, Helen pointed out, “ResLife is curating the emotional experience for everyone [and] they have an inadequate amount of training for an institution that has that amount of leverage.” ResLife is in charge of our dorms–our homes-away-from-home–a large aspect of any college student’s life. Sometimes, though, our living situations feel unwelcoming–from rusty facilities to empathetically unprepared RAs.
Clearly, there’s a problem that could be addressed with better training and more readily available resources. So why hasn’t change occurred?
The college seems to lack an effective approach to mental health and suicide. It’s unclear what the administration is doing to combat mental illness on campus and to respond to the recent rash of suicides. Columbia’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), for example, refused to give Bwog an interview. Instead, they directed us to a February 2 letter from Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg.
The letter has a promising description, calling for “collaboration among students, faculty and administrators, resources dedicated to awareness and a supportive environment, and continuous research to seek effective ways to intervene and provide support.”
But its contents are frustratingly ambiguous, and also misguided in scope and focus.
Most of the letter, for instance, is absurdly self-congratulatory. One section notes, “there is an array of arts, fitness, and other activities…that invite students to reduce stress and have some fun,” citing Yoga Tuesdays as an example. Yoga Tuesdays lasted three weeks and has not occurred since October. For a university with an endowment of $9.04 billion, there must be more it can do to address a campus suicide crisis than provide free yoga.
Indeed, halfway through, the letter states that “we need to do more.” But “more” is unclear. Goldberg writes, for instance, about assembling a task force to consider and combat barriers to wellness on campus, despite there already existing a Mental Health Task Force that has successfully targeted mental health issues on campus for the past four years.
As said before, to criticize CU is an oversimplification. In early March, The Mental Health Task Force co-hosted an event with the Office of University Life to delineate barriers to mental health. Suzanne Goldberg, along with other University administrators, were in attendance. 75 students–graduate and undergraduate–articulated Columbia’s central issues, from its lack of student socializing space to the nonexistent sense of community between graduate students, undergrads, and faculty. Other University bodies are working to outline our issues. In February, CCSC held a meeting with the purpose of “finding every changeable barrier to mental wellness at Columbia.” Here they listed every problem that Helen and so many others have identified: an increase in CPS employment; a decrease in CC and SEAS credit requirements; more intense trauma-response training for RAs; establishing an alumni fund for mental health initiatives; and more.
These efforts are solid, but they may not be enough. In a February 26 CCSC meeting, Dean Valentini and Dean Kromm addressed mental health, but gave no specific deadlines or plans, despite a general commitment to change. Columbia has an endowment of $9.04 Billion, employs 8,806 staff members, and covers 299 acres of New York City. But to me, to Helen, and other students on campus, these resources have failed to give students a sense that they are a part of an organization that cares about them. We’re still swirling in a tsunami of coursework and bureaucracy. Our campus has stood in stone and brick in Morningside Heights for one hundred years, but we fear it will wash us away without forethought.
To stand our ground, we need to think about why we came to Columbia in the first place. When I transferred into CU in the Fall of 2015, I knew it was the world’s most stressed university, and I knew about Columbia’s famed war on fun. I was aware that it was full of people rushing from place to place and that the library was the most popular place on campus. But that’s what I loved about it. As Columbia students, we writhe our fingers through our sweaty foreheads and oily hair at midnight in Butler because we cannot imagine not pushing our limits to the point of perspiration. We rush from class to class, and it stings to not have a break, but we know that that’s what makes New York New York. At Columbia, we are rugged individuals, riding the wave of stress, gliding energetically to graduation.
This individualist spirit is driving our mental health crisis. Through conversations with fellow students, meetings with student councils, and roundtable events with University Life officials, the consistent theme is that students are failing to help one another. As one Spectator op-ed noted, Columbia has an Empathy Problem.
But this individualism is also what can save us. As we become more aware that Columbia’s mental health crisis begins with students, small-scale initiatives to ease life are popping up across the university. We’re organizing more Special Interest Communities dedicated to stress-free living. Student groups devoted to leisure are spiking in popularity. I’ve even received more smiles from strangers in Butler in the past three months than in my entire time here. All 27,232 of us are creating small pockets of warmth across the Columbia Blue.
Laila Pathan (CC ’19) created one of those pockets. She lives adjacent to the room that Mounia was found in, two doors from mine. On February 2, she held a board game night in her dorm. “My mum went to college in Karachi at a time when people were getting shot on her campus, [and] often her college had to be closed because of political unrest,” she wrote in the Facebook event description. “I was face-timing her this morning and she said ‘Ya’ll need to chill…all I did was play board games and take it in stride.’” That night, I played Taboo with six people. In the middle of my worst semester, it was one of the happiest nights of my life.
Every person at Columbia is struggling. We feel isolated and afraid. Many of us think about death. According to a 2004 article in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, over 25% of young adults have passive thoughts of suicide: imagery and minor desire to end one’s life. I have had these thoughts, but it took a neighbor’s death to motivate me to say so.
As we continue mourning the suicides of this and all semesters, instill your trademark Columbian individuality with community. Remember that everyone here shares the same drive to better themselves. Remember it now, remember it when you go to sleep; remember it as you enter the library. Remind each other of it. And in case no one is there to remind you, have faith that it’s still worth it.