Writing class tackles suicide

When freshman Christina Mueller was seven years old, her father took his own life. Eleven years later, Mueller’s experiences coping with loss motivated her to research suicide prevention for her University Writing class.

Little did Mueller know that the topic she chose to write about in January would hit home with many students after two GW undergraduates committed suicide this semester.

The suicide of freshman Hasan Hussain on April 18 led the entire class to discontinue regular discussions and take a closer look at suicide prevention and awareness.

“That Monday we had this completely moving forum discussion,” said Mueller, referring to the class the day after the 19-year-old freshman passed away. “This is what we wanted to do as a class to move through our grief.”

Phyllis Ryder, who teaches the class, called “The Rhetoric of Social Protest,” said the class decided on its own to devote two discussions to suicide and that she merely handed the class over to the students the Monday after Hussain’s death.

“As a writing teacher, I would say it’s exciting to me that as a result of this class, the students felt they had that authority,” said Ryder, who is also the acting director of the University Writing program.

Mueller said when the class met the following Wednesday, students began to brainstorm ideas to help the University in its suicide prevention efforts.

The suggestions included crisis-intervention training for community facilitators, increasing suicide awareness at Colonial Inauguration and listing phone numbers for suicide, substance abuse and sexual assault crisis hotlines on the back of GWorld cards.

The class also urged GW to join a consortium of schools that use the resources of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the group that she chose to write her paper about.

Mueller said she is trying to determine which University officials should receive the students’ proposals, which will be given in the form of an open letter to the GW community.

The proposal comes as the University is setting up a commission to assess its response to the two suicides and three other student deaths that have occurred since December.

Dean of Students Linda Donnels said she is in the process of choosing 12 to 15 members to sit on the commission, which will be headed by Associate Dean of Students Mike Walker. The panel will be comprised of GW administrators, faculty and students.

“What we want to do is make sure that we have adequate resources and proper responses,” Donnels said.

The commission will review GW’s initial response to a death, the University’s ability to communicate with students and student awareness of campus resources, Donnels said. The panel will also look at GW’s suicide prevention efforts.

Donnels said the commission will begin work immediately following the May 16 Commencement ceremony and will make any recommendations on policy changes to University officials during the summer.

“There may be some recommendations that do have costs involved, but we’re prepared to meet those costs,” Donnels said.

She added that any student interested in taking part in the commission will have the opportunity to participate in focus groups and interviews as the commission conducts its assessment over the summer.

Mueller said GW is not doing enough to promote suicide awareness.

“Do I think there’s more that can be done at GW? Yes, but they’re not the only one,” Mueller said.

She added that the only efforts to promote suicide awareness she was aware of on campus were flyers posted in the residence halls, but she said these measures were “not enough.”

Freshman Claire Whitlinger said the class discussions have motivated her to help create a suicide awareness group with Mueller for next semester.

“I think the best way to combat suicide is to give people the tools to recognize it and to know what questions to ask,” Whitlinger said.

Mueller said she and Whitlinger will be discussing the plan to create the group with GW officials over the summer.

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