Trigger warning: suicide
In the first accident, a 19-year-old woman was hit by an Amtrak train in Ann Arbor along the Gallup Park path. The conductor attempted to stop the train and blew the train’s horn prior to the accident.
In the second accident, a 25-year-old man was hit by a train in Scio Township, about six miles from campus.
These tragedies have prompted members of the University community to examine their role in promoting student mental health as the pandemic and related stresses contribute to the mental health crisis, especially among adolescents.
The University is providing counseling services and support to those who were close to the students involved in the accident, including roommates, residence hall coordinators, cohorts, peers, coworkers and more. Tod Sevig, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Director, spoke to The Michigan Daily about the losses of both students. He said it is important to remind community members that every student is valued and important to the U-M community.
“Each student matters to so many other students and it affects so many people,” Sevig said. “Our lives matter and when we lose a student, it affects so many other students – it affects all of us in the community.”
Dean of Students Laura Jones also spoke to The Daily about the services being offered to those close to the students. She said the University tailors its support to each specific situation.
“When we have losses like this in the community, especially the loss of a student, it is a really difficult circumstance and we know that people have a desire for information,” Jones said. “Our primary work in a moment like this is first and foremost to work with the families of the deceased student and then also those closest to the student, and that varies by every circumstance.”
Jones added that part of this community outreach includes meetings and debriefings that are held with students, faculty and staff to talk about the incident and resources for more support. Jones said this is an important part of the healing process and emphasized that these resources have been offered to those close to the students who passed away last week.
“In lots of cases, those meetings do happen and they’re facilitated jointly by CAPS and the Dean of Students’ office and I firmly believe they’re really part of everybody’s healing process,” Jones said. “It’s hard, but the students and the families being able to interact and share stories and the parents of families to hear what comes out of that was also rewarding.”
Sevig elaborated on the role of the University in this process and explained the importance of what he called “postvention.”
“We talk a lot at the University about prevention, but this is actually in a category that we call postvention, and so what we’re doing is helping various individuals and communities come to grips, acknowledge, come together, support each other,” Sevig said. “It’s actually very shocking to hear that we have lost a student – whether it’s a friend or a person in a class or family members. So all these postvention activities are helpful to help the communities come together and heal.”
On Dec. 7, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory to acknowledge the mental health issues and the critical status of adolescent mental health in America. The advisory addresses how individuals can better support youth mental health and wellbeing, including providing high-quality and personalized mental health care, as well as increasing data collection and research to better identify mental health needs.
Jones said the University is aware of mental health issues across campus and is focusing on further supporting students, faculty and staff, especially after the advisory was issued.
“The next phase of this work is drawing even more students’ involvement into the eight work teams that we’ve put together,” Jones said. “It’s a huge undertaking, but I hope five years from now, when we look back at this, this was a transformative moment in the history of our mental health work at the University of Michigan that does transform our community and continues to evolve over time.”
Sevig also added that finals week can be another factor in causing more stress for students, which was exacerbated by the transition back to in-person classes, rising COVID-19 cases and the recent Oxford High School shooting.
“It’s actually a very stressful time, but it’s on top of actually a very stressful and anxiety-filled semester,” Sevig said. “It has been wonderful being back on campus, slowly getting back to normal, but there’s also been a phenomenon where a lot of students have felt like it’s been a very hard, difficult semester. The transition back was hard. And it’s not just five finals or finals week, per se. It’s at the culmination of this hard semester where there hasn’t been a lot of resilience or extra energy in the tank. People are getting tired easier and quicker.”
“A lot of resources are available throughout the whole break,” Sevig said. “Another part of finals week is the anticipation of coming home, which is not as easy as what it sounds like for every student. With mental health, the big theme in what we’re doing is creating different kinds of resources for different kinds of students at different times of the year.”
Multiple student-led organizations on campus also offer mental health resources to the campus community, such as Wolverine Support Network (WSN), which hosts weekly peer-led support groups for undergraduate and graduate students at the University, and hEARt Listens, which is a hotline that serves as a peer support text line.
LSA senior Nick Brdar, executive director of WSN, said that the organization provides a space for students to talk in open spaces with peers.
“These groups are a space for any U-M students to come throughout their busy weeks to dedicate just an hour to checking in on themselves and checking in on others,” Brdar said. “We find that peer support is something that is so simple, and yet it’s also so radical because very rarely do we find spaces that we can be authentically, anonymously our vulnerable selves.”
Next semester, Brdar said he hopes that WSN will continue to grow and plans to continue outreach to the student body through partnerships with other organizations and awareness building events.
“Growth in general is always a focus of WSN, and we’re always trying to grow the organization because we know peer support is so valuable,” Brdar said. “We want to reach as many students as we can. Especially students who’ve experienced loss, specifically these recent losses.We want them to know that we’re always a resource for them.”
LSA junior Nidhi Tigadi, president of hEARt Listens, said hEARt Listens is meant to serve as a supportive way to talk to someone anonymously.
“The hope is that at the end of the conversation, the person that texted in feels a little bit better,” Tigadi said. “You don’t necessarily need to be in crisis to want to have a conversation – the hEARtline is really there for anything from a hard hard day at school to COVID or the media, that can be very overwhelming or lonely.”
In September, the University also adopted the Okanagan Charter, which is an international charter to promote physical and mental health on university campuses.
Jones explained that the University has been working on initiatives across campus to provide more resources and support for students, faculty and staff who may be struggling with mental health issues.
“Before these tragic situations occurred, we had, for the last year, been looking at how to enhance, improve, refine, make more holistic all of what we’re doing to prevent student mental health concerns,” Jones said. “That’s a huge undertaking, and the way that we’re doing it is that we’re taking this whole culture change approach to becoming a health-promoting university and really ensuring that we work to educate all of us to be able to have more compassionate conversations to think about and care about each other, engage in understanding at a time when our society is more polarized than ever.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Support can also be found at the U-M CAPS after hours phone number or the UMHS psychiatric emergency services.
Daily News Editor Kate Weiland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.