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JMU community assesses suicides on campus


The recent suicide of a star softball player for James Madison University grabbed headlines, but it was not the first suicide this year on campus. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

The death of JMU softball player Lauren Bernett on April 25th was the third suicide to take place on the college campus since the beginning of the year. The first was a student who died on January 31st; the second, a man who was reportedly not affiliated with the university who died on February 7th. Their names have not been released.

Randi B. Hagi
Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne (l) and Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller talk about Bernett and the university's decision to cancel the remainder of the softball season.

TIM MILLER: Every single life on this campus matters. Not one more than the other. They all are equal for us as far as when these tragedies happen, one is too many.

At a press conference on Monday, Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne and Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller talked about Bernett and the university's decision to cancel the remainder of the softball season. I asked Miller if the administration was concerned about the three deaths all taking place within just a few months' time.

MILLER: We were concerned prior to this happening. We actually created a group in the fall to look at suicide on campus, because we had noticed the increase of concerns across the country, but also on our campus. And that group has been talking about, "what are the changes we can make?" And we're finalizing work now to increase a number of resources including telehealth on campus, additional training for faculty and staff, as well as having an external group come on campus and do an assessment of everything we do right now, and give us some guidance on what else we should increase.

He said they've also added three counselors and a new staff member in the Dean of Students' office.

If you'd like to learn more about Bernett, JMU's student-run newspaper, The Breeze, has done extensive and poignant coverage of her life and athletic accomplishments. We'll have a link to that on our website.

To get a sense of trends concerning suicide among college students and the general population in the state as a whole, WMRA spoke with Danette Gibbs, the director of The Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia. The center is housed at JMU, but it's an independent, state-funded organization that works with colleges and universities across the state.

Gibbs said that many facets of college life actually serve as protective factors against suicide.


DANETTE GIBBS: There was a study done several years ago, but it's still widely cited, that shows that basically, for same-age peers who are not in college, they die at about twice the rate of students in college. And so the young adults who are in college when they die by suicide, that gets a lot of public attention … but really what we're not seeing is that their same-age peers who are maybe in the workforce, or aren't employed but aren't part of a larger community, that they're dying at twice the rate, potentially.

One of the biggest protective factors is connectedness, and colleges are designed to at least try and connect students to campus life and one another. It's also a relatively controlled and communal living environment.

GIBBS: We know that access to lethal means plays a huge part in suicide rates, so access to firearms particularly, or access to medications and substances. And so, on college campuses, those things tend to be better regulated, like firearms aren't allowed on campuses … And then you're often living with people or in close proximity to people, so there's more people around to intervene if you were to make an attempt, more people to notice when something's going wrong.

As for young adults as a whole, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that the suicide rate among 15 - 24 year olds is consistently lower than that of every age group older than them. However, because young people don't die very often, the suicides that do happen have an outsized impact – it's the second leading cause of death for Virginians age 10 to 34.

Gibbs explained that statistics about suicide typically come out 18 months to two years after a given time period, so we're just now starting to see data about suicides that happened at the beginning of the pandemic. She and others in the field expected to see a large increase in suicide deaths, but so far the numbers have appeared more or less stable.

GIBBS: But we know it's had a huge impact on mental health. We're seeing, in our students, just a level of disengagement that faculty describe as having never seen before. We're seeing increasing anxiety and depression rates. We're seeing more students utilizing counseling services.

One of the ways the center works to support students' mental health is by conducting Gatekeeper Trainings, that teach students, faculty, and staff how to recognize people who are at risk and talk to them about what they're going through and what resources are available, such as counseling, seeing a primary care doctor, or just problem solving a stressful situation.

Gibbs said it's also important for parents to be checking in on their kids' mental wellbeing, and she suggested they exchange phone numbers with their kids' friends, if possible.

GIBBS: Before a faculty or staff member ever notices, a friend notices when their peer is struggling. And if you have a good relationship with your student's peers, there's a chance their peer might call you and let you know something's going on.

If you are thinking about suicide, are experiencing emotional distress, or are worried about a loved one, there are a number of resources right at your fingertips.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK, or 1-800-273-8255, and you can chat with them online, too.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME – H - O - M - E – to 741741 to message with a volunteer crisis counselor.

And, for LGBTQ young people, the Trevor Project has an online chat, or you can call them at 1-866-488-7386 or text START – S - T- A - R - T – to 678678.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.