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WPI confronts crisis following 4 recent student deaths

Boynton Hall at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Ojnabieoot/Wikipedia)
Boynton Hall at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Ojnabieoot/Wikipedia)

Worcester Polytechnic Institute is confronting a crisis on campus following four student deaths in four months.

WPI officials say a first-year student was found dead in his dorm room Monday night. The cause of death is under investigation. Three other WPI underclassmen have died since July. Two of those deaths have been confirmed as suicides.

WPI President Laurie Leshin calls the loss of four students in just four months unprecedented for the school. Prior to the recent deaths, there had been just two suicides among students since 2006.

"So as you can imagine, we are reeling," Leshin said. "In the immediate aftermath of the tragedies, we have been working very closely with students who were closest to our students who passed away."

Leshin said the on-campus mental health center added to its staff recently, including two full-time counselor positions this fall — one of which still has to be filled — and staff to better respond to students' mental health challenges in times of high need.

Some students in a social media forum expressed concern about long waits for appointments at the counseling center. According to Leshin, it takes one to three days to get an initial appointment.

WPI is also sponsoring gatherings for students to express their grief about the recent student deaths, and it's launched an effort to foster connection and wellness campus-wide, Leshin said.

"Everybody on this campus needs to be a part of that culture of care. And that's really where we're focusing our energies," she said. "If we put this entirely on the backs of mental health professionals, we will never have enough of that. We've got to look at it as a more systemic issue that we've all got to be involved in addressing."

Robbie Starr graduated from WPI in May and is now a first-year graduate student there. He was the fraternity brother of a WPI student who died by suicide in September.

"That was incredibly tough to take, knowing that it was not just the first student death — or student suicide — this year. It was like an extra gut punch," Starr said, adding that the fraternity immediately became a source of solace and support.

"We're just trying to check in on each other and really try to ensure that, you know, everyone else is doing okay," Starr said. "And you know, we all just came together, and we laughed about all the good times and shared all the stories that we remember and that we'll miss."

Starr is now serving on a mental health task force the WPI administration formed in the wake of the student deaths. He had worked on previous peer mental health support efforts on campus.

As the task force works on recommendations for how to better address mental health on campus, Starr said he hopes students, faculty and staff in the WPI community will ask each other how they're doing.

"We do need to come together and to show love and care for each other," Starr said. "It's a tough situation for anyone to go through — or any group of people to go through. But giving each other the grace and respect and understanding that, you know, we're all going through this together, and checking up on each other, is of utmost importance."

Starr also urged professors to give students extra time and space to complete their work. He said some professors are doing this already, but more of that kind of response is needed.

"[G]iving each other the grace and respect and understanding that, you know, we're all going through this together, and checking up on each other, is of utmost importance."

"We definitely need to kind of work on that," Starr said. "That adjustment period to ensure that everyone is, you know, well enough and up to speed to be performing at their best."

Leshin echoed that sentiment. The stress and isolation that dominated the last academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic have impacted students' resilience, she said, adding that students need to be given time to "grow back into" the typical school routine — with their needs understood and met.


Resources: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline (call or text) at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). Call2Talk can be accessed by calling Massachusetts 211 or 508-532-2255 (or text c2t to 741741).

Related:

Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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