Sarah Blugis: The Keefer family’s lawsuit shows bravery

If you were a student at GW in the spring of 2014, you probably vividly remember that semester for more than just the classes you were taking.

Over the course of a few months, three students in West Hall on the Mount Vernon Campus died by suicide. Even those of us who didn’t know those students felt the sadness: Every other day of that semester seemed to be filled with phone calls to concerned parents, texts comforting friends and impromptu displays of support for one another across campus. I remember immediately sending two text messages each time a student died: one to a good friend who was a resident adviser in West Hall, and one to a freshman I knew from home who lived there. I couldn’t do anything until I knew they were OK, and thankfully, they were.

The GW community was shaken, and nothing has been the same since that semester. Thankfully, the University took action by working to improve the mental health services and resources it provides on both its Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses. But those changes can never erase what happened that spring, and anyone who remembers won’t forget – even two years later.

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Sarah Blugis

Now, the family of Sean Keefer, a freshman who died by suicide in January 2014, is suing the University for negligence. According to the lawsuit, Keefer visited Mental Health Services twice in the days before his death at a time when its director was unlicensed to practice as a psychologist in D.C. The lawsuit alleges that staff failed to conduct a suicide assessment, form a treatment plan for Keefer or contact his parents – even though he said he had researched ways to kill himself.

This lawsuit is a significant departure from the confidential, quiet ways GW has dealt with student mental health in the past. I hope its filing creates a more honest, up-front conversation about campus mental health and I admire the fact that the Keefers are bringing GW’s actions into the spotlight.

Most of us cannot begin to imagine the pain that accompanies losing a loved one to suicide, let alone the strength it would take to go through what must be an emotionally demanding legal process. We also know that in the past, it seems GW prefers to handle situations like this out of court – although that may be changing. At times over the past two years, it likely would have been easier for the Keefers to give up. But we should be glad that they didn’t.

The spring of 2014 was a pivotal moment on campus, and the events of that semester completely changed the way GW responds to mental health. For example, the Mount Vernon Campus – home to 700 students, many of whom are freshmen – went from having no counseling services to having temporary and then permanent services added. Over the next few semesters, GW moved the Colonial Health Center to a more central location in the Marvin Center, hired eight new clinicians, approved a 3.4 percent tuition increase that would partially help to fund mental health resources on campus and approved a peer-support hotline.

It’s fair to say that the University has wasted no time in proving its commitment to mental health. However, we absolutely cannot stop there.

There’s only so much that officials can do to improve the services that the University provides – and arguably there’s still plenty of room for improvement. As the Keefer lawsuit shows, if one student’s experience with counseling is not supportive or effective, then there is still more to be done. But no matter what, we should never stop talking about mental health.

Three years from now, there will be very few, if any, students left on campus who were undergraduates at the time of those three student deaths. The gravity of those three months was the catalyst for the essential changes to mental health resources at GW. As painful as it may be, we need to keep that same conversation going to ensure that the improvements never stop.

Though discussions about mental health on campus haven’t halted completely, they certainly don’t have the same urgency that they did even a year ago. That’s why the Keefers’ lawsuit is so important. Hopefully, the Keefer family’s courage will foster a more open dialogue about mental health on campus, and remind the families of the other students that we haven’t forgotten their loss, either.

Nothing can ever undo the Keefers’ pain, or make up for what happened. But I hope that because this lawsuit holds GW publicly accountable, it will start at least one conversation that helps at least one person. There’s still a stigma to be reversed, resources to perfect and students to help.

Of course, this dialogue isn’t exactly easy to get through. No one wants to relive the way it felt to hear what had happened to those three students two years ago. No one enjoys talking about their own mental health issues. No one wants to struggle to talk about what might happen if students don’t get the help they need. But it’s something that we, as the students who remember that semester, have to do.

It’s easy to blame the University for not doing enough, or to attack Mental Health Services for being inadequate. While we certainly do need to be critical of the resources GW provides and advocate for better ones, we need to remember to do the hard part, too – and that starts with talking, and refusing to forget.

Sarah Blugis, a senior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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