As members of the Yale community tried Wednesday to make sense of the tragic death of Berkeley College student Cameron Dabaghi ’11, administrators said they hope to prevent more suicides by stepping up the University’s mental health counseling efforts.
Dabaghi’s death — the first suicide of an enrolled Yale student in 11 years, according to administrators — prompted residential college masters and deans, the University Chaplain’s Office and University Health Services to ask students to take care of each other, and of themselves. Administrators reiterated offers of help, telling students to ask peer counseling groups, advisers and mental health counselors for help.
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Berkeley Master Marvin Chun cancelled his usual “Introduction to Psychology” lecture and instead hosted a discussion with University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and YUHS Chief Psychiatrist Lorraine Siggins, allowing students to voice their opinions on the tragedy.
Chun said it was important that the University grieve together as a community, and Siggins and Kugler spoke about the importance of support from friends in detecting depression and other signs of mental stress.
Siggins said that though there are usually clear warning signs before suicides, there did not appear to be many in Dabaghi’s case. In some cases, depressed individuals, especially males, can mask their illness, said Dr. James Potash ’84, the director of Johns Hopkins University’s Mood Disorders Research Center. Ninety percent of people who kill themselves suffer from mental health problems, which are treatable, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Chun ended his session with a plea to students: Call home.
“Call your parents, say ‘I love you,’ ” he said. “People are worried. These are very difficult times.”
Though Yale constantly reevaluates its mental health counseling programs, Siggins said, she and other administrators will soon be looking to ramp up their efforts to educate students about mental illness. But for now, they are more concerned that Dabaghi’s death will spark a cluster of so-called “copycat” suicides — a common occurrence, especially among younger people, Siggins said in a later interview to the News.
“This is an age group where there’s a tendency to copycat,” Siggins said in the interview. “A great deal of that has to do with sensationalizing the suicide.”
Siggins said the University is being proactive in its efforts to look after students’ mental health. She will be sending one member of her staff to every residential college, in addition to asking freshmen counselors, masters and deans to work with students, Siggins said, adding that the University is reaching out to Walden Peer Counseling, an undergraduate counseling group, and Mind Matters, a mental health awareness student group.
The desire to imitate previous suicides may have played a role in the recent deaths of three Cornell University students, two of them on consecutive days in the second week of March, who all jumped from bridges into deep gorges crisscrossing Cornell’s campus. The university responded aggressively, stationing guards and erecting temporary fences along the bridges, as well as sending mental health counselors and residential advisers to knock on students’ doors and ask if they are alright, Cornell Dean of Students Kent Hubbell GRD ’73 said.
This year has been especially tough for Cornell: 10 enrolled students have died from illness, accident or suicide this year, Hubbell said. (Until August 2009, Hubbell noted, there had been no suicides on campus for the past three years, and suicide rates at Cornell have not exceeded national averages over the past decade.)
The university has even created a Web site, caringcommunity.cornell.edu, which features resources for mental health counseling and video messages from administrators who urge students to seek help.
“We’re reevaluating all of our programs,” Hubbell said. “We’re looking closely at everything we can do in matters related to student stress.”
After a Columbia student died by suicide early last year, that university also stepped up its prevention efforts. Officials opened counseling offices in four undergraduate residence halls and improved the system for making appointments with mental health providers on campus. Students who call asking for help are guaranteed to speak with a counselor within 24 hours.
Potash said it is important to recognize that while depression is usually the result of brain disorders, not simply stressful situations, it is still treatable.
“It generally goes away, and people are themselves again,” he said.