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WPI offers support, resources to students and parents following 7 student deaths

Worcester Polytechnic Institute is facing another loss, with the seventh death of a student in six months.

A student was found dead in his off-campus apartment over the weekend, according to a statement released by WPI. The manner in which the student died is still under investigation. In an email sent to parents, WPI President Laurie Leshin identified the student as a member of the class of 2023 and the men's crew team.

Earlier this month, a WPI senior died by suicide while home on holiday break in New Hampshire, the school said.

Between July and November 2021, five WPI students died. Two of those deaths were publicly confirmed to be suicides. A graduate student in the online program died after an epileptic seizure in late November.

The number of suicide deaths in a short time period is notable. According to WPI officials, before the recent deaths, there had been two suicides among the university's students since 2006. The school has about 7,000 students.

"We have experienced tremendous loss this academic year, and we are actively working to help our community," the WPI statement reads. "We are focusing on providing resources to those most directly impacted, and we continue to expand the ways in which we support our students, families, faculty, and staff."

WPI is reminding students and parents that there are mental health resources listed on the Be Well Together section of the university's website. And the new Mental Health & Well-Being Task Force — made up of students, faculty and staff and formed following the student suicides last year — has surveyed the campus community about mental health needs and is presenting recommendations to the administration.

The school is holding a virtual training session for students' parents Wednesday night with Larry Berkowitz, director of Dedham-based Riverside Trauma Center. The organization runs support, counseling and training programs in communities impacted by suicides and other traumatic events. In the WPI session, Berkowitz will share ways parents can engage with their college-age students around issues of mental health and suicide.

"Saying, 'If you've ever had [suicidal] thoughts like this — or if you ever did — what would you do? Who could you talk to? ... What would you do if you were concerned about a friend?' " Berkowitz said. "And make sure that our kids have resources — that they know they could come to us as parents ... that it's a sign of strength to reach out to your [residential advisor], to go to the health center, to talk to a faculty member or a coach or someone you trust if you're worried about yourself or someone else."

Some people tend to worry something is wrong with a school when there is a suicide cluster — a number of suicide deaths that is statistically higher than the norm for a given period of time — Berkowitz said. But, he points out, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people of college age. And, he adds, though internalized perfectionism and academic pressure can be factors that increase risk for some people, suicide is almost always caused by a storm of multiple factors coming together for an individual. The pandemic has contributed to increased depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among teens and young adults.

There is increased risk of suicide or suicide attempts among people who are vulnerable — particularly young people — when there's exposure to suicide within school communities, Berkowitz said.

"For someone who may have had some thoughts of suicide, when they hear or see that someone else who's like them has [died by suicide], then it may increase the chances that they'll be thinking more seriously about it."

He encouraged students to reach out to friends and acquaintances to ask if they're OK and to urge them to speak up if they're struggling, and also for students and parents to share with young people what steps they're taking now and what resources they've used in the past to get through tough times.

"I think at a time like this," Berkowitz said, "the way we can best commemorate and honor the people who are gone is by everybody pulling together into a communal effort and doing what they can to help be part of the solution."


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).

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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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