Students and officials at Rowan University in southern New Jersey are grappling with grief and anger after an unusual recent spike in student suicides.
The most recent suicide — the third of the current semester — happened the day after Thanksgiving, rocking the 19,600-student university in Glassboro.
“Losing three students in one semester is beyond description,” Rowan University President Ali Houshmand told CNN. “How do you look into the faces of the parents of these kids?”
Houshmand said the number was unusually high for a single semester.
The deaths have sparked outrage on social media, with users identifying themselves as current students and alumni criticizing the school for not doing more to help students with mental health problems. Rowan’s president says the university is addressing the issue.
Junior Destiny Hall said she had a personal connection to a friend who died.
“I never had experience with suicide until my friend passed away,” she said. “Then it felt like it was all that I could think of.”
The Glassboro Police Department declined to comment on the three deaths, citing their sensitive nature and an ongoing investigation.
Students organized a vigil to remember those who died
Hall and senior Monica Foley organized a vigil on campus Friday night in honor of those who died. Around 100 people attended, according to Foley.
“Even people who did not personally know the students we lost, their hearts still hurt so much for them,” Foley said.
Organizers provided candles, while some students brought their own. It was a “sad atmosphere,” said Foley, “but people were also hugging each other and supporting each other and it was really nice.”
The vigil, Foley said, was the result of a semester of tragedy.
“All the loss this semester built up so much to the point where it seemed necessary to honor all of our classmates and create a space for everyone to mourn together, ” she said.
Hall said she decided to organize the event “in memory of my friend and others, because I wanted to say that we didn’t forget about them.”
Deaths have sparked criticism on social media
At least a handful of current and former students have posted online comments critical of the university’s mental health resources.
Lauren Kubiak, who graduated from Rowan University May 2018, said on Twitter she believes the school doesn’t have enough counselors available to students. “And Rowan doesn’t think they’re in the wrong?” she wrote.
Foley, the Rowan senior, said, “I think Rowan is taking important steps, but there is always room for improvement.”
In a statement posted online, Houshmand said the university has “tripled the number of counselors at the Glassboro campus” over the past six years and is looking to hire three more professionals. He said that the college’s level of 15 counselors was at the “high end of the national standard,” with one counselor “for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not track suicide data at individual colleges. But CDC data show an increase in the suicide rate among Americans age 15 to 24 since 2000.
Hall said she recognizes that the deaths aren’t unique to Rowan.
“It’s a very personal event to me,” she said, “because I felt like months later we were finally doing [my friend] justice in fighting for recognition of this national crisis that has touched our campus.”
Other universities also have dealt with sudden increases in student suicides in recent years. The University of Southern California said last month that at least three students have died by suicide since the start of the semester.
You can call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for people in suicidal crisis or distress.