How Worcester Polytechnic Institute overcame a wave of suicides

How Worcester Polytechnic Institute overcame a wave of suicides

“Were you exhausted?” » I asked.

His face was flat. “I still am,” she said. “Yeah. Yes, and I still am.

Worcester is famous for the snow dumps it receives in winter. This has something to do with the city’s location in relation to Appalachia. The clouds roll in as the temperature drops, then the snow is relentless and the weather is brutal. All winter it’s brutal, brutal, brutal, and then somehow, slowly, it’s not anymore. This is a bit like how the end of the WPI crisis came about. No one I spoke to could really explain how they knew the emergency had subsided; All they could be sure of was that at some point in the spring of 2022, they intuitively felt that the last death was behind them. Between summer 2021 and winter 2022, the faculty existed in a state of suspension. “We were still waiting, waiting for the next one – if there was going to be a next one,” Foo said. “It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop.” But then, in the middle of winter, she said, it became clear that it was over. There was no clear dividing point, just a subtle change. “The campus culture seemed so much lighter,” she said, “like we had been through this traumatic experience, but we could somehow see the point at the end of the tunnel.” Something was over somehow.

King said she knew “it” was over when, over the spring, people started looking at each other again. For months, it seemed like no one could stand eye contact. “In this pain, you usually don’t want to – if I look into your eyes, I could feel your pain.” And then one day, something changed. “People started looking into my eyes, and I knew they were smiling even though I couldn’t see the smile,” she said, pointing to the masks everyone was wearing at the time. “And I knew we were heading the way. People were looking into my eyes, just looking at me. And I looked at them.

It is now clear that the mental health crisis has forever changed academia: its structures, its culture, and the function it is supposed to serve in American society. More than half of American college students now report suffering from depression, anxiety, or seriously considering suicide. It is an issue that touches on geography, race, class, identity, institutional resources or prestige and academic ability. Nearly one in four Americans in college have considered dropping out in the past year due to mental health. Adjusting pedagogy to account for this magnitude of illness and, in some cases, disability, is the new frontier in postsecondary education.

In early 2022, WPI opened a large new Wellness Center, right next to the school’s main cafeteria, as if to declare that wellness is at the heart of the school’s institutional mission. By the time I visited Worcester this fall, almost all of the short-term recommendations made by the task force, as well as several from the independent Riverside review, had been implemented.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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