At least nine Northwestern students took their own lives in the past five years. When a tragedy like that happens, we know exactly what to expect—the precedent is already set. The University sends out the standard “loss in our community” email. Students gather to remember the one we lost. We paint their name on the Rock. And then we try to move on…
Until it happens again.
It’s not that we at Northwestern have not taken any action. Student initiatives have long fought for the improvement of mental health services through student rallies on campus and, more recently, the creation of groups such as Fund Our Care Collective. Despite being accused by some students of being apathetic , the Northwestern administration has expressed concern about the high suicide rate at Northwestern. After the last suicide occurred on campus last November, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin said in an announcement that two more counselors would join the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) task force. She called students’ safety and well-being as Northwestern’s “top priorities,” which President Morton Schapiro reaffirmed at his “Conversations with the President” series last week.
Still, we are clearly missing something.
There are two standard approaches to mental health issues: prevention and treatment. But when neither of them is enough to stop students from taking their own lives, how do we effectively promote healing in our community?
One answer is postvention, a technique focused on implementing different forms of assistance in communities affected by suicides. In order to make sure this approach is effective, the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA), published Postvention: A Guide For Response On Suicide On College Campuses in 2014. It defines communication and coordination as key to promoting effective healing after a suicide takes place.
There is much the administration can and should do.
In terms of communication, although standard emails may serve as a rapid response, no matter how they are formulated, they rarely achieve the goal of making our community feel supported—but acknowledged at most. To fully, unconditionally assist students, Northwestern should increase its level of transparency with regard to such traumatic experiences.
In regards to coordination, listing available resources on an email is not enough. After tragedies like suicides happen, HEMHA says students—related or not to the victim—are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition whose symptoms may include anxiety and depression.
As an NBN report by Rachel Hawley showed in 2018, these students, traumatized and suffering from mental illness, need the administration to take more straightforward action. When people are struggling, they might night more incisive, direct help. That is why, in order to promote a more effective response, Northwestern should periodically promote debrief sessions to allow students to handle these traumatic experiences together.
In addition to that, it should also create spaces where students can actively remember their peers and pay homage to them.
Most importantly, postvention is not simply a technical term psychologists use. It is an approach that has already shown results around the country.
The University of South Florida, which received the Active Minds Healthy Campus Award this year, has defined postvention as one of its mental health pillars, along with also training over 450 school personnel from the region.
The University of California at Davis is currently working to implement a postvention committee that can provide the local community with personalized support right after a tragedy happens. And, in places like Iowa, all school teachers are required by law to receive postvention training periodically.
In a time in which suicides on college campuses have become a systemic issue, by not promoting postvention initiatives, we are failing to engage in prevention. Northwestern should acknowledge active support from the University is an essential part of the healing process for students.
This does not mean forgetting traumatic episodes, but acknowledging them and working to overcome them as a community.