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Seven Appalachian State Student Deaths in Four Months, ‘Heightened Level of Concern’ Continues on Campus

Editor’s Note: Since this article was posted on Jan. 23, two other students have passed away, bringing the total of Appalachian State University student deaths to nine for the 2014-15 academic year. One student died in a car accident, the third such death in the past two months, and another student was found “in distress” at a residence off campus and taking to the hospital, where he died. 

By Jesse Wood

Jan. 23, 2015. Since Appalachian State University freshman Anna Marie Smith’s disappearance and subsequent death in September, six other ASU students have died in the span of four months.

Two died this past week.

On Monday, a 19-year-old freshman was found dead in her dorm room as University Police conducted a welfare check, and the latest tragedy occurred on Thursday evening as Jacob Whitaker was killed after another driver crossed the centerline on N.C. 105 in Boone and crashed head on into Whitaker’s vehicle. A senior, Whitaker was 21 years old.

In November, three students, one living on campus and two living off campus, died in a 10-day span. All were listed by local law enforcement as unattended deaths with no indications of foul play.

Over the holidays, another student – Amanda Phillips – was involved in a car wreck and died. Some students have coordinated a program in memory of her on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the I.G. Greer Theater.

Of the seven deaths that have occurred, at least four are or appear to be suicides, according to autopsy reports and speaking to multiple law enforcement officials, including Boone Police Capt. Andy LeBeau and ASU Police Chief Gunther Doerr.

LeBeau said that one of three unattended death cases in November doesn’t appear to be a suicide and that investigators were still waiting for autopsy reports and toxicology results from the state medical examiner’s office. Aside from this case, LeBeau said the unattended deaths lately have been by hanging.

Back in November, LeBeau said that none of the deaths appeared to be related in anyway when asked if there might be a bad drug out there that students are taking. Just as LeBeau couldn’t explain the recent string of deaths, neither could Doerr.

“We’ve run into a very strange cycle of [not just suicides but] student deaths in general,” Doerr said. “This has been the last three years or so highly unusual. I don’t know if I can give you a logical explanation. It’s just happened, and we are having to deal with it.”

Suicide Clusters

Dr. Dan Jones, director of ASU’s Counseling Center with nearly 30 years experience in collegiate counseling, noted that “a number of universities have lost students in a short span of time” in the past.

“We are no exception. Unfortunately, each year we lose several students due to a variety of circumstances,” Jones said.

J.J. Brown, dean of students and associate vice chancellor for ASU, provided some data for years past. In 2012, nine students died; in 2013, five students died; and in 2014, 10 students died. It’s unclear the causes of all of these deaths.

As for deaths by suicide, there is a phenomenon called suicide clusters or suicide contagion – something that Jones alluded to and that Dr. Allen O’Barr, director of counseling and psychological services at UNC-Chapel Hill, mentioned in an interview on Friday.

O’Barr, who noted that major universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill usually see on average one suicide per semester, a number that he said might even be excessive, agreed with Jones and said that it isn’t “atypical” or “not completely unusual” for several suicides to happen around the same time at institutions of higher education.

He said that colleges and universities won’t have any suicides for sustained period of time, but once one person commits suicide, O’Barr said others in a crisis think, “I hadn’t thought that was an option before.”

And before you know it, back-to-back suicides occur and more follow. He said the next semester another suicide or two might occur, and then those types of death will fade away for a long time.

O’Barr referenced the several New York University students that committed suicide in 2003 and said that UNC-Chapel Hill experienced this same tragedy more than a decade ago.

“I remember we as a campus were thinking, ‘Oh my God. What is going on?’” O’Barr said. “We thought we weren’t doing the right things, so we ended up reviewing our policies.”

But after the review, O’Barr said they found that the university was following the proper suicide-prevention procedures and policies.

He figured ASU is probably doing a similar review. But like UNC-Chapel Hill years ago, he doesn’t believe Appalachian State and its counseling services “dropped the ball” with this issue.

“ASU’s shop is a really good shop,” O’Barr said.

“Sometimes these things happen, horrific tragedies, and people want desperately to find a reason or a fix,” O’Barr said, adding that it’s not uncommon for people to link a suicide to “xyz” and say if “only this person hadn’t done this then this wouldn’t have happened.”

“There is nobody to blame if a person wants to kill themselves,” O’Barr said. “You reach out and do the best you can to protect them … You can lock somebody up, but they’ll still find away to do it.”

‘Heightened Level of Concern’ on Campus

As one ASU student, senior English major Jay Salton, said recently, a “heightened level of concern” exists among parents and students because of the mounting deaths in the 2014-15 school year.

Parents have been flooding the campus’ official social media pages with their concerns and fears. University officials are tackling this issue at ASU Board of Trustees meetings, and Salton said that teachers are bringing up the “dark cloud” that seems to be hanging over the campus recently in the classroom.

Asked how the university’s students, staff and faculty are coping, Brown said:

“Losing a student is extremely challenging on family, friends, and our university community. We work to provide resources and support for these individuals through our Counseling Center, Counseling for Faculty and Staff, and other avenues to express their feelings in a safe manner. We all handle loss differently, and our goal is to support each student as they navigate these challenges. We have also developed close connections with campus ministries for students who have spiritual needs.”

While Salton said he’s in the camp of not assessing blame to anyone in these types of situations, he’s noticed that some students have criticized the university for “not doing enough or not helping enough” with regards to counseling.

Salton referenced a ranting blog written by an ASU student after the death of a 19-year-old ASU freshman on Monday:

“These tragedies have rocked Appalachian’s campus and caused a great deal of grief and uproar from students and faculty alike. In response, Appalachian State sent an email from Chancellor Sheri Everts with a vague link to a university website dedicated to giving you all sorts of phone numbers … including 911!” this blogger wrote.

Following the Monday death, ASU Chancellor Sheri Everts emailed the Appalachian community with the following message:

“The news we received last night about the death of one of our students saddens me deeply. This was a devastating announcement for all of us, and I want to emphasize that there is no evidence to suggest any threat to the university community.

When we lose one of our own, it hits our community incredibly hard. I want to continue to call your attention to the many resources available to you as you or those who you know face personal challenges. You can find links to these resources at http://appcares.appstate.edu.

Sadly, across our nation, college campuses struggle with the deaths of students, and we are not immune to these tragedies. In my time as Appalachian’s Chancellor, I have learned that Mountaineers face challenges together, and we support one another as a thoughtful and caring community. I ask that we all continue to pull together, and continue supporting one another, as we move into the Spring semester.

Salton continued, “As of lately, it seems students are talking about the school not doing enough or not helping enough in regards to counseling because they are emailing us frequently about it and giving us website links and phone numbers to call and these students just wish they could do more.”

“But I am not sure what exactly, specifically they are looking for,” Salton said.

Counseling Services at ASU

Well before the well-publicized death of Anna Marie Smith, who killed herself in a wooded area off-campus, in between Mountaineer Hall and Poplar Grove Road in Boone, the university was pro-active with suicide prevention.

In October 2013, the Appalachian State University announced that it had received a three-year, $194,707 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association to “implement a comprehensive approach” to preventing suicide.

The university in the fall of 2013, announced that the grant would enable the university to:

  • More effectively coordinate existing suicide prevention activities through the addition of a suicide prevention coordinator in the Counseling and Psychological Services Center
  • Purchase an interactive online suicide-prevention training program
  • Expand the number of faculty, staff and students who receive suicide prevention training
  • Create an extensive network of individuals who are trained in all key areas where student interaction occurs – including residential (both on and off-campus), academic, healthcare, co-curricular and interpersonal/ family – to recognize signs, symptoms and communications of suicide and respond by connecting students to needed resources

In March 2014, a full-time suicide prevention educator was hired with funds from the grant, and the training programs are “designed to help members of the university community know how to help intervene and recognize signs of individuals in distress,” according to info provided by university officials.

Since fall 2014, 650 people, including 414 students, 206 faculty and staff members and 30 others, have received this suicide-prevention training.

Dean of Students J.J. Brown also said that resident assistants are on every floor in all of the dorms providing support by connecting students who express suicidal thoughts with the Student Health Services or the Counseling and Center Student Development Center.

If a student is acutely suicidal, in imminent danger of suicide, then counselors can hospitalize students to keep them safe. Dr. Jones said these hospitalizations (from 24 to 72 hours) occur several times a year. He added that people generally aren’t acutely suicidal for more than 72 hours.

“The bottom line is that people are legally entitled to the ‘least restrictive environment’ and no one can absolutely guarantee the safety of someone intent on ending their life,” Dr. Jones said.

Brown also cited the “It’s Up To Me” campaign, which is a message on how everyone can play a role in the safety of the community, and the AppCares website, which was created to “let students know there are resources and individuals who are here to help and they are not alone.”

Other training initiatives cited by university officials is the Red Flag Campaign, which is a campus-based social marketing campaign designed to raise awareness and educate people about being active bystanders.

“We educate and train our Mountaineer community to be UpStanders. We take part in campus-wide acknowledgement and awareness of Red Flags through information exchanges, programs and trainings,” according to info provided by university officials.

Since the fall of 2013, more than 1,800 people, primarily students, have become Red Flag Educators on the campus.

Two other training initiatives cited by university officials include Interpersonal Violence Awareness and Prevention Training, where 741 faculty and staff supervisors completed the training in the fall of 2014, and HAVEN (Helping Advocates for Violence Ending Now), an online training program, which 1,557 incoming freshman and transfers completed Part 1 last fall and 556 completed Part 2. HAVEN allows students to learn important prevention skills and strategies for sexual assault and relationship violence prevention.

While adding that his staff has intensive and extensive training in suicide intervention and prevention, Dr. Jones noted that the staff is specifically trained in supporting grief, mourning and facilitating emotional processing in “postvention” interventions following the deaths of students.

Jones, who was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors in 2011, recently helped author Postvention: A Guide for Response to Suicide on College Campuses.

‘Staggering’ Counseling Statistics on University Campuses

At an ASU Board of Trustees meeting in December, university officials were presented with troubling data that “shows increase in concerns over the past several semesters” regarding the number of students seeking help, according to Brown.

While the suicide rate has remained the same for “many years” – 7.5 per 100,000 for college students and 15 per 100,000 for the general public, Brown said, “There has been an increase in the numbers and severity of students coming to the counseling center in recent years, which is a national trend.”

The counseling center on ASU provides clinical services for roughly 10 percent of the population.

Comparing the 2009 fall semester to the 2014 fall semester up to Dec. 3, the ASU Counseling Center has seen an increase in initial interviews (up 65 percent to 827 in fall of 2014), individual therapy sessions (up 50 percent to 1,957), group therapy sessions (up 21 percent to 669), emergency sessions (up 13 percent to 95) and number of students served (up 46 percent to 1,028).

During that same time frame, the Counseling Center, during walk-in visits, saw an increase in the number of students that express or disclose:

  • “I have thoughts of ending my life” (up 118 percent to 400 students);
  • “I am afraid I may lose control and act violently” (up 56 percent to 244);
  • “History of self-injury” (up 70 percent to 298)
  • “Unwanted sexual experience in past year” (up 71 percent from Fall 2013 to 58)
  • “History of experiencing sexual violence – rape, attempted rape, stalked” (up 20 percent from fall 2013 to 130”

The ASU Board of Trustees also heard about The Early Intervention Team, which meets with students who show signs of difficulty maneuvering college life and have been referred by students or faculty. Comparing fall 2012 to fall 2014, referrals have increased by 18 percent to 235 referrals, while interventions have declined 26 percent to 48 referrals in fall 2014.

The CARE (Campus Awareness, Response and Education) Team has seen an 83 percent increase in student referrals from fall 2012 to fall 2014, which saw 467 referrals. The CARE TEAM addresses various behavioral concerns or incidents with students.

From fall 2012 to fall 2014, withdrawals have declined on all three fronts: personal (declined 6 percent); psychological (declined 22 percent); and medical (declined 20 percent).

The report to the ASU Board of Trustees also shows a list of “staggering national statistics” regarding college students seeking help at university counseling centers:

  • 1 out of 2 have prior counseling
  • 1 out of 3 have prior medication
  • 1 out of 4 have seriously considered suicide
  • 1 out of 5 have prior self-injury
  • 1 out of 11 have attempted suicide
  • 1 out of 15 have considered injuring another
  • 1 out of 35 have caused serious physical harm

‘Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem’

That’s an apt phrase suicide-prevention counselors say over and over when dealing with patients, and Brown noted, “The vast majority of individuals who attempt suicide are glad they survived at a later date.”

“We also tell them that leading illnesses related to suicide like anxiety and depression are very treatable,” Jones said.

In a video recently produced by The Appalachian, the college’s newspaper, Dr. Denise Lovin, a psychologist with the ASU Counseling Center, encouraged students who are suffering to take advantage of the services offered.

“One of my passions is to be able to reach out to students and to help them acknowledge their own suffering and to realize that they don’t need to feel that way, whether that’s overcome with panic, anxiety, insecurity and depression, and so people realize that help is available and to encourage people to take advantage of what kind of resource is here,” Lovin said. “It’s free. It’s confidential, and it’s available to students.”

For more information, call the counseling center at 828-262-3180.

See walk-in hours below:
Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 to 11 a.m.
Monday through Thursday from 1 to 4 p.m.
Friday from 1 to 3 p.m.

The Counseling Center also offers after-hours on-campus emergency coverage for trauma and life-threatening situations such as suicide and sexual assault. To activate the system, call the Campus Police Department at 828-262-2150.