One year later, campus considers way forward

The death of Cameron Dabaghi ’11 last year prompted the University to re-examine its mental health services.
The death of Cameron Dabaghi ’11 last year prompted the University to re-examine its mental health services. Photo by Christopher Peak.

The morning after junior Cameron Dabaghi ’11 took his own life, students learned of the loss in a message from Yale College Dean Mary Miller.

The message, though brief, brimmed with offers of support from formal counseling services at Yale Health and the Chaplain’s Office, as well as from campus figures such as deans, masters, teachers, coaches, chaplains and advisers.

In the hours that followed, Yale’s mental health support network stretched across campus: Berkeley Master Master Chun held a gathering at his house the morning the public learned of Dabaghi’s death. A candlelight vigil in Berkeley College for all students drew hundreds looking to grieve and find support.

Deans and masters in every residential college invited students to share their feelings at open houses immediately following the vigil, and the Chaplain’s Office remained open until late evening. Yale Health counselors were available throughout the night for walk-in appointments.

In those first weeks — and ultimately, in the year to follow — personal relationships with friends and trusted adults proved essential to grieving students. While Yale Health temporarily expanded mental health counseling in the wake of Dabaghi’s death, students interviewed said they still struggle to understand what to expect when turning to the center: Yale Health has received criticism from students for long wait times and its distance from campus.

Students gather at a candlelight vigil held last April after Cameron Dabaghi ’11 committed suicide.
Students gather at a candlelight vigil held last April after Cameron Dabaghi ’11 committed suicide.

Anna Ershova ’11, who studied at Yale-Peking University in China with Dabaghi the semester before his death, said the outpouring of support she received from campus administrators was “very comforting.” Ershova said she scheduled one session with a counselor at Yale Health, and found it a positive experience.

At the time, Ershova said, students knew that if they wanted to meet with a mental health counselor at Yale Health, they could do so within half an hour of arriving at the center.

Ershova then added, “Unheard of, right?”

Still, Ershova said that as a whole, the University’s response was professional and understanding.

“I don’t think they could have handled it any better,” she said.

‘NO REASON IS MINOR’

In an interview with the News at the time of Dabaghi’s death, Chief Psychiatrist Lorraine Siggins said the University’s most pressing goal was to prevent “copycat” suicides among other students. She said the department would later pursue plans to educate students about mental illness.

Siggins could not be reached for comment this week.

Director of Yale Health Paul Genecin did not address whether mental health services have changed since last year, but said in an email Tuesday that he hopes all students know that they can receive counseling free of charge. He said about 25 therapists work for the center’s Mental Health and Counseling Department — including psychologists, psychiatrists and clinical social workers — and that professionals are also available after hours through the Acute Care Department hotline.

“Students seek counseling for many different reasons,” Genecin wrote, “but no reason is ‘minor’ or ‘unimportant.’”

But Julia Lurie ’12 — whose personal essay about her experiences with anxiety and depression at Yale was published in the Huffington Post this January — said students are not always open to seeking professional help.

Indeed, Katie Fitzpatrick ’11, a Berkeley freshman counselor, said that beginning a relationship with Yale Health’s mental health department can “take a lot of personal initiative.”

Despite some criticism of Yale Health, Fitzpatrick said she does not believe Yale would hire ineffective or unqualified counselors. In addition to seeking help from counselors and friends, Fitzpatrick emphasized the importance of strong relationships with trusted adults as a part of a student’s support system.

“Even the froco can’t catch everything,” Fitzpatrick said. “The best friend can’t even catch everything.”

SLOW CHANGE

Just weeks after Dabaghi died, mental health figured prominently in Yale College Council candidates’ debates.

YCC Vice President Annie Shi ’12 said mental health at Yale was a “hot-topic issue” during the elections. After her victory, Shi assembled a Mental Health Project Group of about 10 students who meet weekly.

Shi said the group has discussed student complaints about mental health services at Yale, including long wait times for appointments and the way Yale HEALTH’s distance from campus might discourage students from using its services.

But the group has met many logistical dead-ends throughout the semester, Shi said, and has faltered in the face of privacy restrictions and a lack of concrete data to support student complaints of long wait times and insufficient mental health resources after the end of freshman year. While more specific plans for improving the sophomore advising support system in particular are in the works, Shi said they are not yet concrete.

The mental health awareness student group Mind Matters has turned its focus inward towards the student body over the past year rather than work at Fellowship Place, a local mental health services provider, as it has in previous years, said co-president Lauren Lisann ’12. Mind Matters now hosts events such as study breaks and dinner discussions, she added.

Since last spring, demand for peer counseling from the Walden service has not required an increase in the number of students on duty between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., said psychiatrist and advisor Carole Goldberg. At least one student counselor is always available overnight.

NOT ALONE

After her essay appeared in the Huffington Post, and the Yale Herald before that, Lurie said she was surprised to receive such a large number of messages of thanks and personal testimony from many college students, both at Yale and elsehwere.

“I think it’s something a lot of people identify with — even more than I initially thought,” she said, stressing that mental health among students is also “not just a Yale problem.”

Last spring, Yale was not alone in grieving the loss of a student: 10 enrolled Cornell University students had died from illness, accident or suicide that academic year.

In response to a spate of suicides the university immediately erected wire fences in front of gorges on campus and added “a substantial amount of staff support” in the campus health center’s mental health department, said Cornell Dean of Students Kent Hubbell GRD ’73.

This academic year, there have not been any reported suicides at Cornell, but Hubbell added that with the constant flow of new students into a university, the mental health department is “never done” working to meet challenges.

While preventing others from self-inflicted harm was an urgent goal last spring, Hubbell said the university was aware that other mental health issues still needed attention in the wake of the deaths.

“As tragic as it is, suicides are just the tip of the mental health iceberg, so to speak,” Hubbell said.

The university is now producing sets of guidebooks and videos for faculty, staff, students and their families that provide instruction in how to identify and handle mental health issues, he said.

At Cornell, campus health officials also struggle to meet student demand with existing resources.

“It’s a challenge, let’s face it,” Hubbell said. “It seems that we always need more mental health staff than we have. … I think every school is challenged to support this issue.”

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