The Unthinkable Mental Health Crisis That Shook a New England College

The first death happened before the academic year began. In July 2021, an undergraduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute was reported dead. The administration sent a notice out over email, with the familiar, thoroughly vetted phrasing and appended resources. Katherine Foo, an assistant professor in the department of integrative and global studies, felt especially crushed by the news. She taught this student. He was Chinese American, and she felt connected to the particular set of pressures he faced. She read through old, anonymous course evaluations, looking for any sign she might have missed. But she was unsure where to put her personal feelings about a loss suffered in this professional context. What was the appropriate channel for processing, either with co-workers or students, the sorrow and fear that the death of a student inspired? Foo went on preparing for her fall classes.

The week before the academic year began, a second student died. A rising senior in the computer-science department who loved horticulture took his own life. This brought an intimation of disaster. One student suicide is a tragedy; two might be the beginning of a cluster. Some faculty members began to feel a tinge of dread when they stepped onto campus.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is a tidy New England college campus with the high-saturation landscaping typical of well-funded institutions. The hedges are beautifully trimmed, the pathways are swept clean. Red-brick buildings from the 19th century fraternize with high glass facades and renovated interiors: a new sports complex, a new “well-being” center. Students were still not allowed to congregate in large groups, so the lush quads and dining halls were eerily silent.

The following Wednesday, students began classes, with the option of Zooming in from their dorms. Some W.P.I. faculty members continued scaled-down versions of teaching strategies they developed during the pandemic: prerecording lectures, holding seminars over Zoom and experimenting with ways to have lab sessions with only 12 students present. Fastening Air glasses to the heads of the 12 so everyone else could watch from their dorms had not worked very well. (The glasses ran out of battery power too soon, and they gave people headaches.) The leaves began to turn in Worcester.

W.P.I. had possible risk factors for mental-health issues and suicide among the student body: Its academic culture was fast-paced and intense; the enrolled students skewed male; there was a comparatively high number of neurodivergent and introverted students who might struggle to maintain the social bonds that help protect against psychological challenges. But then, in 2021, risk factors for every type of student were elevated.

Charlie Morse, who was the school’s director of counseling from 2006 to 2021 and is now the dean of student wellness, told me that until that point in his tenure, W.P.I. had lost two students to suicide — well below the national average. Still, he had seen the worst case play out at other schools. Morse is a slender, soft-voiced man in his early 60s. He has worked at the school for more than 30 years. When he tried to describe to me what it felt like to come to work in the fall of 2021, there was a tremor in his voice. “It’s like, Oh, please, not us,” he told me, sitting in his office recently. “Not us.” He swallowed.

A third student died before September was up.

“It was a very dark time on campus,” Foo told me. “Faculty were being asked to take on a role that I think historically we haven’t been asked to play.” Her own anxiety intensified. She felt herself tensing anytime she looked at her work email. Even when there was no crisis announcement, faculty and staff members flooded one another’s inboxes with long group-email chains, processing fear and rage that had nowhere else to go. Their lives were also upended by the isolation, illness and chaos of the pandemic; simultaneously, they felt as if they were the “first line” responders to students in crisis, but they weren’t trained or equipped for the level of distress.

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A portrait of Katherine Foo.
Katherine Foo, an assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.Credit…Brian Ulrich for The New York Times
A portrait of Katherine Foo.

“Our brain could get used to almost anything,” says Jean King, the dean of arts and sciences and a professor in the biology and biotechnology department. “But we can’t get used to something that’s unpredictable.” King is a distinguished scientist who has spent decades researching the neuroscience of stress, in particular the way in which Black Americans and other oppressed people experience the physiological effects of systemic disadvantage. King, who is a Black woman, is known on campus for being passionate, warm and wedded to her job. She explained to me that stress becomes toxic, and resilience becomes harder, when the stressor seems random and erratic. “If it’s unpredictable, my brain doesn’t know what to expect next,” she told me. “That’s not a place my brain likes. No brain likes it. So my brain is experiencing two things: It can’t predict what’s going to happen, and it can’t control it if it does happen. So it has no way of getting ready for the situation.”

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In the wake of the third death, the university set up an emergency task force with a mandate to determine the possible causes of extreme student distress. Their job was to recommend data-backed interventions to the growing mental-health crisis on campus. The university’s mental-health and wellness protocols had always been aligned with the leading edge of best practices, but evidently the industry’s best practices weren’t sufficient anymore. Something had changed. What was it? What should come next?

Worcester Polytechnic is a STEM-focused research university, and its curriculum emphasizes project-based learning: Students train toward junior- and senior-year projects that involve real-life impact, like developing a low-cost device to feed premature infants; or running analyses of the distribution system for Panama’s national water authority to identify opportunities to minimize shortages. Robots the size of small coolers on wheels scuttle around the quads delivering food to students in their dorms or labs.

The task force — led by King alongside Matt Berry, who was Morse’s assistant director at the counseling center, and including faculty and staff members and students from every part of the school — was also structured like a group project, first gathering data about what was wrong; then analyzing the data for patterns before recommending strategies for new policy. A second task force would oversee implementation. W.P.I. also asked the Riverside Trauma Center, a Boston-area organization that specializes in crisis response and the aftermath of traumatic events, to conduct an independent review of the school’s mental-health practices. It might have felt better, a few members of the task force suggested to me, if the university had leaped immediately to action, especially when the community was hurting and frightened. But members of the task force thought that designing an intervention without first clearly defining the scope and nature of the problem was irrational and ineffectual. This is a community of empiricists.

“Depending on their position on campus, everyone had a different opinion of what the problem was and how we needed to solve it,” Kimberly LeChasseur, a researcher and data analyst at the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center who helped design the task force’s research phase, told me. “The idea was to get as neutral and comprehensive an understanding of the problem as possible, not limited by any one perspective.” The task force organized a series of town-hall events and listening sessions at which students could talk about their experiences of stress, anxiety, depression and isolation. A series of smaller group conversations were used to assess particular experiences of stress: Black students spoke with one another, led by a Black professor; L.G.B.T.Q.+ students and first-generation students did the same; and so on. The school hosted town-hall events for faculty and staff members and parents. Everyone on campus was invited to complete a written survey.

Among the professors, especially the junior teaching faculty, female professors and scholars of color, there was consistent talk of burnout. Foo, who had joined the task force, was struck by this. “We heard from a lot of faculty that they were just very overwhelmed by the need for students to find a sympathetic ear and some guidance.” The students also reported feeling burned out and overwhelmed — specifically citing the feeling that their ability to perform academically was demanded at the expense of their feelings, health and humanity. The picture that emerged from the town halls wasn’t altogether different from the complaints coming out of universities all over the country during the pandemic: more work than anyone could healthfully manage; less community resilience than people needed; anxiety about what variables the future might bring; and no sense of when it would end.

The fourth death came late at night. It was November, and King was in bed next to her husband, a psychiatrist at a nearby hospital. She assumed the ringing cellphone was his because he was sometimes on call. “Then he said, ‘Jean, it’s your phone.’” Her caller ID told her that it was Leshin, the president of the college, so she rose from the bed and went to their bathroom. She remembers Leshin’s voice sounding heavy. “We lost another one.”

After the call ended, she went downstairs and screamed. “I’m sure the entire neighborhood heard me,” King says. She hadn’t known this student personally, but she feels passionately, she told me, that all W.P.I. students are “her kids,” and she felt overcome by horror at what was unfolding, seemingly unstoppably, among her students. “I just lost it because we had finally brought people together,” she said. Her mind began racing. “What are we doing wrong? What do we need to do to make this go away? What do I have to do personally? What do I need from the community?” She felt at a total loss. “How are we going to do this?”

A portrait of Jean King.
Jean King, W.P.I.’s dean of arts and sciences.Credit…Brian Ulrich for The New York Times
A portrait of Jean King.

In classes, professors began to experiment with coping strategies. Did they need to be more relaxed about deadlines? Lighten course work? Pursue tighter connections with students who seemed withdrawn? Steve Kmiotek, a professor of practice in chemical engineering who joined the task force, explained to me that part of what was so terrifying was that the deaths didn’t match previous patterns. Kmiotek had known to keep an eye on students who seemed withdrawn or disheveled, students who stopped coming to class or exhibited erratic behavior, students whose grades dipped. But one of his students was among the dead, and this student hadn’t shown any of those signs. Actually, none of the dead students matched the profile of a suicide risk.

“That was frightening” Kmiotek said. He looked down at the table in his office. “And you can’t help but — could I have spotted it? Could I have done something?” Kmiotek, who is 65, took to giving out his cellphone number and checking in personally with students he knew were stressed — a method several other professors I spoke to mentioned adopting even though they didn’t exactly have the time or bandwidth for that level of tabs-keeping.

The job of calculating what this new era required, meanwhile, came to rest, in part, on the shoulders of data analysts like LeChasseur and Stacy Shaw, who was then a new assistant professor of psychological and cognitive sciences. The two women were part of a team assigned to take the quantitative data that had come in via surveys, as well as the recordings and transcripts of student, faculty, staff and parent feedback, and run an analysis that would explain, with the certainty of numbers, what was going wrong.

The team coded all the transcripts and survey responses, identifying recurring phrases and key words and then looking to see how often they were spoken and by whom. Which key words and phrases occurred most frequently together? From which parties? Running multiple, increasingly complex analyses, they began to identify patterns: which members of the campus community were most affected by which kinds of stress and how were they experiencing that stress academically and personally. LeChasseur and Shaw worked together only on Zoom and over email, working past midnight most nights and on the weekends, too, haunted by the feeling that they were racing against the clock. “By the way, when you do this as a researcher, this can take years,” LeChasseur told me. “We were doing this in a month or two.”

Stacy Shaw with Kimberly LeChasseur looking at papers.
Assistant Prof. Stacy Shaw with Kimberly LeChasseur, a researcher and data analyst. Their team’s analysis identified several issues at W.P.I. requiring immediate intervention.Credit…Brian Ulrich for The New York Times
Stacy Shaw with Kimberly LeChasseur looking at papers.

I was sitting with the two women in Shaw’s office, a shady, spacious nook at the far end of one of the campus’s newer buildings, with a large window overlooking wild grasses. They had embraced at the beginning of our interview: Though they spent the winter of 2021-22 in constant contact, they had never met in person. “We were flying by the seat of our pants,” Shaw recalled. “It never felt like enough, and it never felt fast enough. Because it kept happening. And every time it did, no matter how much good work you did or how much students said they appreciated whatever you did, you felt like you failed. Over and over again.”

The fifth death was a graduate student, who died of a seizure in November. The sixth was a senior in the mechanical-engineering department who killed himself while home over the holiday break. The initial findings of the task force were distributed in January 2022. Three days after the report came out, another student, a junior on the crew team, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his off-campus apartment.

This was perhaps the worst period on campus. Seven students had died in six months. There was no precedent for dealing with loss like this. No one knew when it would end, and the task force’s implementation team had only just received a list of recommendations. Following research that indicates that spending too much time talking about or commemorating a student who has died by suicide can risk “contagion,” Morse and Leshin encouraged the faculty to retain as normal an educational experience as possible. The university had organized no memorials or vigils.

Many students and parents found this baffling. Students published an open letter that February calling W.P.I.’s response to the deaths “inconsistent and trauma inducing” and suggesting that the lack of time for group reflection and grief disregarded the “gravity of recent tragedies.” A new student group called the Mental Health Committee organized a “support walk” for an evening in February, at which students formed a candlelight processional and exchanged flowers to demonstrate community resilience. Local florists donated thousands of flowers. Mothers from the community lined up to give hugs to any student that needed one.

“It felt like life or death,” says Brynne Scott MacWilliams, who was a freshman when she joined the committee. “It felt like the life of the student body was on our shoulders.” This was of course how the faculty and administration felt as well. The pressure to get this right was immense, Morse told me. That winter, he would often see a truck belonging to a document-shredding company on his daily commute to work, and long, more than anything, to be a shredder.

Broadly, the analysis run by LeChasseur and Shaw identified several issues requiring immediate intervention: intense academic pressure; insufficient self-care habits among the students; lack of social connection; insufficient awareness of information about the existing health resources at W.P.I.; and pandemic burnout. The task force had several clear recommendations that could be implemented almost immediately: Hire more counselors for the health center; increase the number of mental-health trainings available to the faculty and staff; expand student mentoring programs; build up social programming for students, giving them more opportunities to make friends and feel connected to the campus community; once a term, set aside a day to cancel classes and meetings so that everyone could do something — not homework — that would boost their well-being.

Foo had served on a subcommittee dedicated to evaluating what changes in pedagogy might be required to meet the moment. Their findings tracked with broader trends in secondary education. “It became really clear that we couldn’t continue viewing students exclusively in terms of how they performed in our classes,” she said. “We needed to understand students as whole people, and we needed to develop a much more personalized approach.” The task force recommended that faculty members incorporate students’ mental health and well-being into their teaching priorities, whether that meant talking openly about their own struggles, beginning class with meditation or being more willing to grant student requests for extensions or accommodations. Some professors balked. “A lot of faculty were really pushing back and expressing resistance,” Foo said. “You know: ‘We weren’t trained in this, I really don’t feel comfortable engaging with students in this way.’”

Attending to individual student needs takes more time, Foo acknowledged, and deciding how and whether to agree to student requests requires mental and ethical effort. Some pleas for extensions or course adjustments can’t be granted without making the instructor workload unmanageable or risking unfairness to other students. Not all students feel comfortable advocating for themselves, and often the most structurally disadvantaged students don’t ask for help. Is it fair to grant an extraordinary request to someone simply because they’re emboldened enough to ask? How is a professor supposed to evaluate whether a student need is acute enough to make extraordinary accommodations?

Earlier this year, the Healthy Minds Study, which runs surveys on the mental health of postsecondary students and faculty members, confirmed that this extra work is unevenly distributed. Female, trans and nonbinary faculty members were much more likely to be supporting students through mental-health challenges than male faculty members; faculty members of color were more likely to do so than their white colleagues. More junior, midcareer faculty members took on more of this work than late-career colleagues. In other words, the people spending the most time addressing and accommodating student mental-health needs are the ones who are most likely to be lower-paid, with less authority and less job security. Adjunct and contingent faculty members often undertake this work at several jobs simultaneously for separate institutions, without benefits. One way to think about this is as a cascade effect. There’s often a critical shortage of mental-health professionals on campuses who can address student need, particularly for Black, Latino and Asian students; in the absence of sufficient mental-health scaffolding, faculty members have found themselves stepping into a new, time-consuming dynamic with their students that doesn’t always feel clearly defined or sustainable.

W.P.I.
“It felt like the life of the student body was on our shoulders,” says a member of the Mental Health Committee, a student group.Credit…Brian Ulrich for The New York Times
W.P.I.

During one of my visits to W.P.I., I spoke with Zoë Reidinger, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Adrienne Hall-Phillips, an associate professor of marketing in the business school. They had each been asked to join the task force. We met in Reidinger’s office, which is invitingly decorated, with a fuzzy green couch that looked strikingly like the face of Oscar the Grouch and an extensive selection of tea. Reidinger’s dog, Lydia, vied for a spot on the “Oscar the Couch.” Hall-Phillips teaches in the business school and is the most senior Black female professor on campus, in terms of years at W.P.I. Reidinger is nonbinary and neurodivergent. When they were hired, 10 years ago, they were the only out queer faculty member on campus, they told me. The two professors are close friends and act like beacons for minority students on campus, even those they don’t teach and have never met. “We are resources for Black students and queer students, and plenty of other … ‘others,’” Reidinger told me, smiling.

All the ‘others,’” Hall-Phillips confirmed. “It’s something that we talk about all the time, that this part of what we do is not actually in our job description.” They are inundated with student requests for advice, mentorship and care. Hall-Phillips lets students book individual appointments with her via an open calendar, with slots occurring several days a week; as of that afternoon, the next open appointment was more than four weeks away. She was also texting with a student who wanted to check in — she would later duck out of our conversation early and catch the student during the walk to her next appointment. Reidinger gets so many requests that they keep their schedule (and Lydia’s) on their office door. For a time, they stocked the refrigerator in their outer office with jars of chili for students who might be worrying about how to afford dinner.

I mentioned the concern about equity I saw in the Healthy Minds Study and heard about from faculty members that I interviewed all over the country. Women, L.G.B.T.Q. faculty members and faculty members of color already face structural disadvantages in academia when it comes to pay equity and securing tenure. If these same faculty members spend vast reserves of time and energy caring for students in distress (work that frequently goes unacknowledged) instead of completing research or traditional administrative service work, that gap can widen further.

Zoë Reidinger and Adrienne Hall-Phillips.
Prof. Zoë Reidinger and Prof. Adrienne Hall-Phillips, members of the task force.Credit…Brian Ulrich for The New York Times
Zoë Reidinger and Adrienne Hall-Phillips.

Both of them seemed to sigh and laugh at the same time. “Am I pissed off about it?” Hall-Phillips said tartly. “Yes. Do I wish there were some other individuals who would pick up a little bit more of the slack? Yes. Particularly our white males.” Reidinger snorted. “But I can’t focus on that because if I focus on that, the students that are in need won’t get the help they need. They just won’t get it. And that’s what’s more important to me.”

Reidinger and Hall-Phillips were emphatic that they love working at W.P.I. They would like to see more faculty and staff members who look like them, but broadly they think the administration cares immensely for its students and is doing a good job. They know that when they need to refer a student for serious help, the student will receive it, and they have direct lines and first-name relationships with the mental-health professionals in the counseling center. But they’re also candid about the sacrifices they’re making. “The ’21-22 school year of chaos and sadness was a wake-up call for all of us,” Hall-Phillips said. “Not just revamping all of our mental-health resources on campus but looking at faculty and staff and recognizing: ‘Oh, they’re burned out, too. Oh, they’re suffering, too.’”

“Were you burned out,” I asked.

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

Worcester is famous for the snow dumps it receives in the winter. It has something to do with where the city is in relation to the Appalachian Mountains. The clouds bear down when the temperature drops, and 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. That’s kind of how the end of W.P.I.’s crisis arrived. No one I spoke to could quite explain how they knew that the emergency had subsided; the most they could be sure of was that, one moment in the spring of 2022, they felt intuitively that the last death was behind them. Between the summer 2021 and winter 2022, the faculty existed in a state of suspension. “We were always waiting, waiting for the next — if there was going to be a next,” Foo said. “Like waiting for the other shoe to drop.” But then somewhere deep into the winter, she said, it just became apparent that it was over. There was no clear point of demarcation, just a subtle shift. “The campus culture felt 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 somehow over.”

King said she knew “it” had ended when, sometime during the spring, people began looking at one another square in the face again. For months, it seemed as though no one could bear eye contact. “In that pain, you usually don’t want to — if I look you in the eye, I could feel your pain.” And then one day, something had changed. “People started looking me in the eye, and I knew they were smiling although I couldn’t see the smile,” she said, gesturing to indicate the masks everyone wore at the time. “And I knew we were turning the corner. People were looking at me in the eye like, just looking at me. And I was looking at them.”

It is clear by now that the mental-health crisis has changed academia forever: its structures, its culture and the function it is expected to perform in American society. More than half of American college students now report depression, anxiety or seriously considering suicide. This is a problem that reaches across geography, race, class, identity, institutional resources or prestige and academic ability. Almost one in four Americans in college considered dropping out in the last year because of their mental health. Adjusting pedagogy to account for this scale of illness and, in some cases, disability, is the new frontier of postsecondary education.

In early 2022, W.P.I. opened a large new Center for Well-Being, right next to the school’s main cafeteria, as if to declare that wellness is central to the school’s institutional mission. By the time I visited Worcester this fall, nearly all the short-term recommendations made by the task force, and several from Riverside’s independent review, had been implemented.

Morse told me that mental-health care should be a campuswide effort, requiring the participation of every single member of the community. He cited an ongoing program W.P.I. calls the Care Team, which is responsible for coordinating an immediate response when a student is flagged as at risk. Anyone in the community can register concern about a student with the Care Team, and that same day, the team will have quietly reached out to that student’s contacts, dean, professors and the counseling center to see about approaching that student with support. Morse told me that he recently heard from a janitor in a dining hall who had come to one of the training sessions to learn how to identify students in trouble, figuring that he should know. To Morse, this was a perfect example of the new paradigm.

A portrait of Charlie Morse.
Charlie Morse, the school’s director of counseling from 2006 to 2021.Credit…Brian Ulrich for The New York Times
A portrait of Charlie Morse.

Like many universities, W.P.I.’s focus has evolved from taking responsibility solely for the academic education of its students to becoming the custodian of individual student wellness. This is, perhaps, the new vanguard: the academic institution as wellness community. It has a slight dystopian ring to it. The all-encompassing beneficent administrative machine, with eyes everywhere. And yet, the circumstances producing these conditions seem to justify it. Many students who struggle with their mental health or suicidal feelings never reach out to a counselor. The school’s goal is to reach struggling students however it can: during classes, on scheduled rest days, through the entire community, including the janitors. W.P.I. is collaborating with the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School on a research project that uses an A.I. mobile app designed to monitor and predict suicide risk among college students who opt in to the study by passively surveilling data and vocal tone.

Morse believes in communicating openly about the imperfect and difficult search for best practices. In the aftermath of the crisis, senior leadership heard from some colleagues at other universities who were incredulous at W.P.I.’s decision to be so open about what was happening. Some schools keep their suicides out of the public eye — sometimes to honor family privacy but also to avoid having the institution’s name sullied. “We made the choice to talk about it, to be as honest and brave as we could,” Morse told me, in part because W.P.I. officials believed that sharing their experiences, their process and their data could help other schools navigating similar territory. But also, Morse said, “talking about that work, that’s what this campus community needed as part of the healing. This is what happened. This is what we’re doing. This is what’s working. This is where we’re going. With transparency.” He pointed out that the Center for Well-Being now features prominently in the school’s admissions tours.

The campus felt, on the sunny days I visited in the fall, energetic and cheerful. Undergrads threw Frisbees on the lawn outside the Center for Well-Being, and a weekly farmer’s market sold fruit and flowers nearby. On one of the college sidewalks, students browsed through tables of posters they could buy for their dorm rooms, the same ones that have hung in dorm rooms for decades: the Beatles at Abbey Road, Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” Marilyn Monroe with her skirt swirling about her shoulders. A bronze goat statue supervised the quad — W.P.I.’s mascot is Gompei the Goat, and someone told me that when students matriculate they are welcomed as “part of the herd.”

One morning, I attended a session of Katherine Foo’s course on “Smart and Sustainable Cities,” which began with a technique she has been using for the last year: She sounded a singing bowl three times and asked everyone to take three deep breaths each time. As the reverberations from the bowl slowly fell silent, Foo went alphabetically by last name down the roster, asking each student to tell the group his or her name and to add a word describing how they felt. One by one, the students responded.

“I’m feeling relaxed.”

“I’m feeling stressed.”

“I’m feeling hydrated.”

“I still don’t know what I’m feeling.” Soft laughter rocked around the room for the student and his inscrutable feelings.

I was reminded of something King said to me earlier in the day about collectivity being key to both individual and community resilience. I had asked her what the future of this issue was; what was the way to move forward in the face of the massive challenges — pedagogical, structural, personal — facing educators and students alike? I expected her, maybe, to say something about neurobiology and forward-thinking, or about institutional policy. Instead, she said this: “I think all of us have to be able to say to each other, and even to the people who are suffering: ‘This is difficult. This is difficult for me. I feel you. I’ll try to help but know that I may not be perfect.’ We all have to take that up. That we’re trying — that we’re trying. That’s all we can say.”

She thought for a few seconds quietly, and then spoke again. “I think that’s what community is — coming together and saying: ‘I’m vulnerable, just like you are. I’m trying. I’m not going to leave you alone.’”

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