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How two flagship North Carolina universities responded after several student deaths

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A makeshift memorial was set up in the Pit on Monday as students and faculty mourned the losses of the weekend. Passersby left notes of encouragement and flowers.

This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.


UPDATED 3/22 2:10 p.m.:

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and death.

When Sree Yallapragada found out her friend and N.C. State University classmate died unexpectedly of health complications last February, she said she was struck with an indelible pang of shock, regret and deep sadness.

The death of Yallapragada’s classmate, Toni Tutt, hung over their small, tight-knit cohort of students in N.C. State’s English department throughout the remainder of the semester, she said. 

As she stood next to her classmates at their graduation ceremony, she said Tutt’s absence was even more tangible. 

“Someone is missing,” Yallapragada recalled thinking. 

A few days later, when she learned another N.C. State student had died, this time by suicide, she felt numb.

“I don't think there was enough time or way to process what was happening because it was so frequent,” Yallapragada said.

By the end of the 2022-23 academic year, 14 students at N.C. State had died, seven by suicide. In the five years prior, an average of eight students died at N.C. State annually, and of those, the institution averaged three suicides per year. 

However, information obtained by Technician on Thursday in a public records request revealed that more N.C. State students died by suicide in 2022 and 2023 than previous reports may have implied. 

A total of 12 N.C. State students died by suicide in the 2022 and 2023 calendar years, a span of 24 months. 

While seven students indeed died by suicide in the 2022-23 academic year, a number widely reported by media outlets based on information from the university, that data was only gathered from the approximately nine months of that academic year. 

Five N.C. State students died by suicide in 2022 and 2023 outside that period, either between January 2022 and August 2023, during the prior academic year, or in 2023 after spring commencement.

In 2021, UNC-Chapel Hill saw a similar spate of incidents when at least three students died by suicide in one semester. 

Neither UNC-CH nor N.C. State publicly track the exact number of students who die during their time at the institutions, including those who die by suicide. This makes it hard to determine how many students die at the universities each year. 

UNC-CH does not internally track student deaths, UNC-CH’s Dean of Students Desirée Rieckenberg said. An N.C. State spokesperson did not confirm whether the university internally tracks student deaths, saying only that the process it follows when a student dies is “not necessarily a formal tracking mechanism.” 

The lack of records surrounding student deaths is not unusual. In 2018, The Associated Press found that out of the 100 largest public universities in the United States, 46 tracked suicides among their student bodies. N.C. State was one of two universities that didn’t provide tracking data to AP at the time.

The mental health crisis UNC-CH and N.C. State face is not altogether unique. Universities across the country are also confronting a 62 percent rise in suicide rates among young adults over 14 years. 

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This year, four students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls died by suicide. During the 2020-21 academic year, three students at Dartmouth College died by suicide. In 2021, two students at the West Virginia University died by suicide.

Avery Cook, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC-CH, said death by suicide has long been a risk factor for young adults, but that risk has increased in tandem with rates of other mental health concerns.

“I think there are a lot of stressors in the world right now,” they said. “We're coming out of COVID, which was a really challenging, traumatic time for everyone, and we have to remember that each individual is dealing with their own configuration of events.” 

Shortly after each campus lost multiple students to suicide, both UNC-CH and N.C. State partnered with The Jed Foundation through the JED Campus initiative. The nonprofit collaborates with universities to improve mental health programs and suicide prevention efforts. UNC-CH partnered with JED in February 2022, and N.C. State in September 2023.

N.C. State and UNC-CH are also two of a growing number of universities that have established protocols for the aftermath of student deaths, commonly known as postvention protocols.

Justine Hollingshead, N.C. State’s assistant vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said the university adopted a formal postvention protocol in 2015, and it has evolved over the nine years she has served as the postvention coordinator.

UNC-CH published its postvention protocol on the Dean of Students website in 2022 after several student suicides in 2021 gained significant attention. Rieckenberg said the University made the decision in an effort to prioritize transparency. 

“We felt like it was really appropriate and a good time to be able to open up the playbook for folks to be able to see and understand not only what we do, but some of the whys behind what we do,” Rieckenberg said.

What UNC-CH and N.C. State’s postvention protocols address 

After a student death, both N.C. State and UNC-CH ensure the family and friends will have been notified, Hollingshead and Rieckenberg said. The two universities focus on identifying individuals who may be highly impacted by the death and work to provide care and resources to them.

“We can't control social media or the local media coming with a camera, of course, so there's sometimes that time lag,” Hollingshead said. “And that's viewed as a failure on our part, but that's not a failure. It's a best practice to make sure we're being respectful of the family and their notification.”

At UNC-CH and N.C. State, discussion of student deaths can spread quickly on social media. Both universities’ policies concede that speculation about the circumstances of a student's death may circulate long before any official information is released. 

In the circumstance that either school finds it necessary to send a campuswide communication, details like the cause of death typically won’t be included. At N.C. State, official statements can confirm a suicide if the death was public or if information about the suicide is already publicly known. 

In campus communications that allude to student deaths, leadership at N.C. State and UNC-CH have emphasized mental health resources available to students.

Last academic year, N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson released several messages to the community to acknowledge select student deaths and direct students to on-campus support. But this year, the university hasn’t taken the same approach to publicly addressing the death of two students — one of unknown causes and the other, an apparent suicide. 

“Sending a mass email out to tens of thousands is not a best practice,” Hollingshead said

The change is an effort to be mindful of suicide contagion, Hollingshead said, which is when exposure to suicide can influence others to attempt. Research has shown that teenagers and young adults can be more susceptible to suicide contagion and clusters.

UNC-CH’s response regarding deaths on campus has been similar. When a student died on campus in April 2023, the sixth death that year, the University would not provide details to local media.

UNC-CH Police only release an Alert Carolina message if there is an ongoing threat to the community. However, students did receive an Alert Carolina message in September 2021 about the suicide of a student at the Forest Theatre, despite the message stating there was “no ongoing threat to campus.” 

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Photo courtesy of Jermaine Hudson/NC State Student Media. Members of the N.C. State community light candles at the vigil for Ryan Bohner on Stafford Commons on Sept. 21, 2022. Bohner was the first of 14 NC State students who died during the 2022-23 academic year.

Steps taken by both universities 

Following the suicides on UNC-CH’s campus in fall 2021, the institution launched the Heels Care Network, a website that provides a comprehensive list of mental health resources, events, news and a peer support chat. Similarly, N.C. State established the Wolfpack Wellness website in November 2023 to provide a single place to explore the university’s mental health and well-being resources.

Now in its third year of JED Campus, UNC-CH is focused on implementing recommendations from JED and community participation.

In fall 2022, UNC-CH launched a Healthy Minds Survey for the student body, and the JED Task Force developed a strategic plan based on the results of the survey. Currently, a group composed of University administrative officials, students and mental health professionals are in the process of implementing initiatives from the strategic plan. 

Amy Johnson, vice chancellor for student affairs and co-chair of the JED Task Force, said several of JED’s recommendations for supporting student mental health are either completed or in progress at UNC-CH. Of the 79 recommendations, only four have not been started.

During the final stage next year, UNC-CH will readminister the Healthy Minds Survey and complete a post-assessment. JED will provide a progress summary and guidance on how to continue improving mental health resources.

“While not all recommendations may be implemented at every campus, we think these findings speak to our strong commitment to supporting student well-being and are grateful for our community’s partnership,” Johnson said in a statement

In fall 2022, N.C. State launched a Student Mental Health Task Force. Since the group issued its final report in spring 2023, implementation teams have worked to address several recommendations. The university scheduled regular wellness days, embedded counselors in each college across campus, reviewed its postvention protocols and engaged in the JED Campus program.   

N.C. State is in the first stage of the Jed Foundation’s four-year program, which will continue through spring 2027.

Hollingshead said the partnership with the Jed Foundation has already brought about change to parts of the postvention plan to align it with best practices. N.C. State has provided training for some campus entities that had not previously been trained in the protocol due to high turnover, she said.  

“We had kind of missed that piece,” she said. “People come and go, so we had not done as good a job of training individuals who might have to respond.” 

Hollingshead and other university leaders will continue to enhance N.C. State’s approach to mental health, she said. JED will conduct a campus visit to N.C. State from March 28 to 29 to help inform its assessment and planning process. 

Yallapragada said students coping with the loss of a friend or classmate should seek help, adding that it is crucial to lean on resources like crisis helplines and well-being support provided by their university. 

“It's like when you're traveling and the flight attendants are showing the oxygen mask demo and they're like, ‘Put it on yourself before you help people,’” Yallapragada said. “Take care of yourself before you tackle everything else.”  

If you need emotional support or are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. In the case of a life-threatening emergency, call 911. UNC-CH students can call UNC CAPS at 919-966-3658 or drop in Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To view a comprehensive list of resources at UNC-CH, visit https://care.unc.edu/resources/. N.C. State’s Counseling Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 919-515-2423. To view an exhaustive list of available resources at N.C. State, visit https://wellness.ncsu.edu/resources/.

Editor's note: Emily Vespa is the managing editor of Technician, N.C. State's student newspaper.

@emmymrtin | @emily_vespa

@dailytarheel@ncsutechnician

university@dailytarheel.com


Emmy Martin

Emmy Martin is the 2023-24 editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as the DTH's city & state editor and summer managing editor. Emmy is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and information science.