Three students have died by suicide at Rowan University this semester, more than school officials can ever remember happening in such a short time span.
That has left the New Jersey university campus reeling.
Several hundred students and staff members packed a campus ballroom Monday night to share their own struggles with mental health, battles they’ve seen their friends have, and concerns about Rowan’s ability to make it better.
Sophomore Sarah McClure, 19, said her sister, a freshman, went to the wellness center this year for help and was deemed not to be in crisis.
“Someone said they would get back to her,” McClure told the audience. “And she’s still waiting to hear from the wellness center.… I just feel really hurt.”
Rowan is far from the first university to be rocked by suicides. The University of Southern California also had three this year. The University of Pennsylvania had more than a dozen between 2013 and 2017, and Penn’s head of counseling and psychological services died by suicide in September. Cornell University also has grappled with the issue.
Rowan president Ali A. Houshmand, in a email to the university community, said the suicides were part of “a national crisis now affecting our community.”
When suicides occur, often there’s an outcry about gaps in services and a demand for more help, and universities respond. But some students who attempt or die by suicide aren’t under the care of their campus wellness center, and university officials say that no matter how much they do, they can’t promise a solution.
“If somebody comes and asks me, can you guarantee that next year there won’t be anybody who harms themselves," Houshmand said, “I really can’t.”
But officials said one thing they can do is allow people to talk about it — Monday’s was the second open session at the university in the last week — and come together to seek improvement.
Thanksgiving week, a Rowan student jumped to his death from a parking garage near campus. Then the community was shaken again last week when another student was injured after falling from another nearby parking garage; that student remains hospitalized and police are investigating the circumstances of the fall. Rowan officials have declined to disclose details of the other suicides this semester.
During the nearly two-hour forum, students — and Houshmand — were open about their personal struggles, even while news cameras were rolling.
“For the better part of five years, I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression, and this semester has been, through no fault of the university, the worst it has ever gotten," said Owen O’Brien, 18, a freshman.
He said he stopped going to classes for several weeks and no one really reached out to him to find out why.
“A student attends class with no problems for the first month, then falls off the face of the earth like I did for the next two,” he said. “That kind of needs to raise more red flags than it did.”
University officials promised to look into concerns.
“There were some legitimate complaints that we need to follow up on,” said Scott Woodside, director of the wellness center, who was among university administrators who spoke and fielded concerns at the forum.
Rowan’s Student Government Association turned its regularly scheduled meeting Monday into the mental health forum.
“If something happens to our community, we all feel it,” SGA president Arielle Gedeon, 20, a junior, said. “We all suffer from the loss. Our students are hurting. Our faculty are hurting. I’m hurting.”
Since the deaths, the owner of the parking garages installed temporary protective fencing with an intent to put up permanent barriers, said Joe Cardona, Rowan spokesperson. The university and parking garage owner began discussing the possibility of fencing last year after another student died by suicide at one of the garages, Cardona said.
The school also will bring on three more counselors in January, a plan already in the works before the suicides. SGA, said Gedeon, had been asking for more counselors and the university began charging students a $30 wellness fee this year to pay for them. The additional counselors will bring the number to 18, better than the recommended guidelines of one per 1,000 students, Cardona said. About 15,500 students attend Rowan’s Glassboro campus.
But the steps alone won’t solve the problem, school officials said.
“Suicide is a complex issue. There’s no easy answer,” Woodside said.
Amy Hoch, associate wellness center director, said just because a student isn’t deemed to be in crisis doesn’t mean he or she won’t be helped.
“It is trying to identify how we can best help you in the time frame that is going to meet our abilities and meet your needs,” she said.
Employees opened up, too.
“We have to normalize darkness,” said Catherine DeMartino, an alumna who works in the bursar’s office and told the audience she has struggled with suicidal ideation since age 4. “It’s time we shine our lights on these monsters of our mind.”
Houshmand, the president, shared that his son, now 31, is bipolar and has had suicidal ideation since he was 10.
His son, he said, has been rattled by criticism of Houshmand and the university on social media in the aftermath of the deaths.
“We are not monsters,” Houshmand said. “We don’t go out there trying to hurt you. Our number one priority always is you.”
Emily DeSantos-Rademaker, a sophomore from Cherry Hill, told the audience that her friend Ben Deschesne, the Maine student who died the Friday after Thanksgiving, was under the center’s care. It is not to blame for his death, as some on social media have suggested, she said.
“The only thing that killed Ben Deschesne was what he was suffering with and what he was going through that even the people closest to him didn’t know," she said through tears. "I think the concept of blame needs to be taken out of the narrative.”
University officials maintain that they have tripled the number of counselors at the fast-growing campus in the last six years. They also say they have eliminated wait lists by having students meet with a counselor and then based on their level of need, offered “health and wellness strategies,” directed to group counseling or individual sessions or referred to outside specialists.
Gedeon, the SGA president, said the conversation will continue.
“We understand this forum won’t resolve all the problems,” she said, “but it’s step one of having action-oriented solutions.”