Thursday, July 25

How Worcester Polytechnic Institute weathered a wave of suicides

“Were you burned,” I asked.

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

Worcester is famous due to the snow accumulations it receives in winter. It has something to do with the city’s location relative to the Appalachian Mountains. The clouds lower as the temperature drops, then the snow is relentless and the weather is brutal. All winter it was brutal, brutal, brutal and then somehow, slowly, it wasn’t anymore. This is how the end of the WPI crisis came. No one I spoke to could explain how they knew the emergency had abated; the most they could be sure of was that, at some point in the spring of 2022, they intuitively felt that the last death was behind them. Between summer 2021 and winter 2022 the faculty was in a state of suspension. “We were always waiting, waiting for the next one, if there was one,” Foo said. “Like waiting for the other shoe to drop.” But then, in the depths of winter, she said, it became apparent that it was all over. There was no clear point of demarcation, just a subtle change. “The campus culture felt so much lighter,” she said, “like we had been through this traumatic experience, but somehow we could see the point at the end of the tunnel. Something was somehow over.

King said he knew “everything” was over when, in the spring, people started looking at each other again. For months it seemed like no one could bear eye contact. “With that pain, you usually don’t want to. If I look into your eyes, I could feel your pain.” And then one day something had changed. “People started looking into my eyes and I knew they were smiling even though I couldn’t see the smile,” he said, gesturing to the masks everyone was wearing at the time. “And I knew we were turning the corner. People looked into my eyes as if they were just looking at me. And I was looking at them.

It is now clear that the mental health crisis has forever changed academia: its structures, its culture, and the function it should serve in American society. More than half of American college students now report depression, anxiety, or are seriously considering suicide. This is an issue that spans geography, race, class, identity, institutional resources or prestige, and academic ability. Nearly one in four Americans in college have considered dropping out in the past year because of their mental health. Adapting pedagogy to account for this scale of illness and, in some cases, disability, is the new frontier of post-secondary education.

In early 2022, WPI opened a large new Wellness Center, right next to the school’s main cafeteria, as if to declare that wellness is central to the school’s institutional mission. When I visited Worcester this fall, nearly all of the short-term recommendations made by the task force, and many by Riverside’s independent review, had been implemented.