NYU, GW mobilize to address student deaths

As GW grapples with its third student suicide since February, New York University is still recovering from the fatal fall of one of its graduate students.

Joanne Leavy, a second-year graduate student at the Manhattan school, jumped to her death last Monday, just two days before Susan Shin, a GW sophomore, jumped from her eighth-story apartment. But while Leavy was the sixth student to die in a fall since last autumn, NYU just recently began to introduce some counseling measures that have been in place at GW for some time.

The school has introduced a 24-hour stress hotline that connects students with social workers, said Bret Collazzi, editor in chief of the Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper.

The hotline, which opened to students this fall, bears close resemblance to a system operated by the GW Counseling Center. GW students suffering from extreme emotional distress or suicidal thoughts can call UPD at 202-994-6111 24 hours a day to speak with a counselor. Students can also seek professional assistance by calling the Counseling Center on weekdays.

In addition to the new hotline, NYU has expanded its counseling hours and has implemented a new staff rotation system to better deal with students seeking help.

Leavy was not NYU’s first student to pass away this year. Two weeks ago, Spenser Kimbrough, a sophomore, became ill in his room and died. Officials do not believe the cause of death was suicide.

“There’s definitely an atmosphere of shock and general grief across campus,” Collazzi, a former GW student and Hatchet reporter, said.

Although some students at NYU may be grieving in the wake of a suicide, vigils and memorial ceremonies are not common on the Greenwich Village campus.

“The university has shunned away from any kind of public outcry or announcement after a suicide,” said Collazzi, explaining that part of the motivation comes from a fear that memorial ceremonies could spawn copycat deaths.

Mike Walker, GW’s associate dean of students, said GW does not shy away from vigils for any deceased student. A memorial service was held for each of the six GW students who have died since December. Just a day after Shin died, a memorial service for her was held on Kogan Plaza (See “Friends mourn sophomore” p. 1).

“The University takes a position to help students,” Walker said. “We believe that if students want to memorialize a peer, then we should help them with it.”

Student groups or friends of the deceased usually organize the memorials, but GW often provides financial and logistical help in organizing the events. With permission of the decedent’s family, the University also places the student’s name on a memorial plaque in the Marvin Center.

Walker said that in addition to helping GW appropriately memorialize a dead student, the University mobilizes grief support services all over campus by alerting deans and faculty of a suicide or death and by providing extra counseling services.

Over the summer, a GW commission chaired by Walker investigated the University’s response to five student deaths last year. While the group’s findings have not yet been released, Walker said the University Counseling Center has taken a thorough look at its own services in the last few months.

Diane DePalma, director of the Counseling Center, said her department met with community facilitators during the summer and conducted a week-long training session on suicide and death issues. DePalma added that her department also took immediate action in wake of last week’s suicide.

“As soon as we were called up about (the suicide) … right away we started calling other students who may have been affected,” DePalma said. “We started calling other student departments in Student and Academic Support Services and (Community Living and Learning Center) to help them properly deal with students.”

DePalma said students suffering emotionally can attend a depression screening on Oct. 7 and are welcome to speak with counselors in the Counseling Center or through the 24-hour hotline.

Dr. David Jobes, a psychology professor at Catholic University of America, located in northeast D.C., said it is essential that colleges dealing with suicide not generate panic among students.

“The most important thing is that you provide a measured, thoughtful, clear-headed response,” he said, adding that this can be accomplished through a vigil that gives students a chance to grieve.

Jobes, an expert on adolescent behavioral health, added that universities must make students aware of counseling services, which can be the difference between life and death for students with suicidal tendencies.

“Being in a university or college is protective for many students because of the resources available to them,” he said, “as opposed to an unprotected environment.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.