A Youth Mental Health Crisis
President Laurie Leshin convened the Mental Health & Well-Being Task Force in September to advance WPI’s goal of creating a campus centered on mental health and well-being. The group serves as a critical augmentation of work already under way, guided by the strategic plan, to take a holistic and inclusive approach to elevate student well-being across academic and co-curricular experiences, including launching the WPI Center for Well-Being.
Nationally, feelings of disconnection, fear about the future, hopelessness, and increased anxiety are more common than ever, especially among the college-age population. Students are grappling with increased stress and anxiety that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Some students’ existing mental health challenges have worsened during COVID-19, while other students have experienced such concerns for the first time. At WPI, the community is dealing with seven student deaths, three of which are known to be by suicide, since July.
These losses are unprecedented in the university’s history. Between 2006 and June of 2021, WPI saw a total of two deaths by suicide. Prior to 2006, when many of WPI’s most effective suicide prevention efforts began, the university’s suicide completion rates were on the national average (6.5-7.5 per 100,000 students, which translates to one every three years). Up until this year, that rate had dropped to well below the national average.
To gain greater insight into specific factors that impact mental health and identify opportunities to address those factors, the task force gathered significant community input via 16 town hall style listening sessions open to undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents; a qualitative survey that garnered more than 1,100 responses; and other avenues.
Co-chaired by Jean King, Peterson Family Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, and Matthew Barry, associate director of the Student Development and Counseling Center (SDCC), the 35-member task force of students, faculty, and staff will build a foundation for strengthening mental health and well-being resources for the campus community and helping students develop the life skills needed for success at WPI and beyond.
Initial actions taken:
- Hosting the first Be Well Together Day for students, faculty, and staff
- Hiring additional staff in the Student Development and Counseling Center
- Augmenting WPI’s Counselor-on-Call system with an after-hours telehealth service for students
- Launching an online system for booking SDCC appointments
- Fast-tracking the launch of the new Center for Well-Being