Suicide at UO: An Illusion of Care

Content Warning: This article discusses themes of suicide and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised

Lane County is experiencing an epidemic and not the one you are thinking of; suicide takes someones life every three days here. The population of the University of Oregon is not exempt from this rising problem. Universities nowadays are saying they are extremely forward thinking and progressive, especially when it comes to the mental well-being of their students. But, is that really true? How could higher institutions view students with any care beyond a superficial level when all we are is a constant source of endless income? Are university staff showing insincere interest towards their students simply to shield themselves from civil suits? Is all of the suicide prevention and help offered by universities, the University of Oregon in particular, a shallow attempt to cover legal bases instead of truly caring about their students? In an age of litigation against the University, how can UO truly care about their students and staff?

In terms of the university, there is a certain accountability that all institutions are held to. Universities are putting the pressure on young adults whether intentional or not. Introductory level classes are intended to be extremely hard in order to “weed out” the students who should not actually be in the class. How is that acceptable? When students are failing classes the repercussions are academic probation and having to meet with an advisor before registering for next term's classes. But no one ever stops to ask why. Why did this person, who was successful enough to get into University of Oregon, fail their first term of classes? Based on a 2013 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, depression is the second leading concern in 36.4% of all college students (American Psychological Association). Maybe, if someone looked at these statistics and really thought, they would start to possibly comprehend what is wrong with higher education. College has evolved from a place of higher level learning to a pressure cooker only some are expected to survive. The university has lost sight of the humanity of their students, treating them like a means to an end rather than a human.

A classroom was an environment of learning and fostering creative thinking but now, classrooms at the University of Oregon are another cog in the machine of American capitalism. In America, it is enforced from a young age that there are two paths you can take: one of “success” or the alternative of living life as a so-called burnout. Your success as an adult is determined by the next seventeen years of your life: elementary school, middle school, high school, SATs or ACTs, apply to college, go to college, graduate college, work for the rest of your life. When a place of learning becomes more about being successful than learning, it is no real surprise students get overwhelmed and sometimes want to give up.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people ages 15 to 24. While UO has tried to address the problem, all of their attempts have been shallow and lacking preventative care. Some schools are much better at addressing suicide concerns than others, but do any of these schools actually care? We live in a highly litigious society where any wrongdoing is scrutinized under a microscope. Is the University actually trying to prevent suicide or are they trying to prevent involvement of the judicial system? Freshman year, I was identified as a student at risk by the Dean of Students after speaking with a mandated reporter about my struggles. Instead of calling me, I was sent an email saying University of Oregon “policy… requires any student experiencing a situation that...threatens their own safety to complete a suicide risk screening” and you are required to complete the screening within a week of having the email sent (Howard 1). In this letter it said, “if for some reason you do not [complete the screening within one week from receiving this email], it may be necessary to take additional steps to assess your safety,” which according to a psychologist at the counseling center could be anything from a 72 hour psychiatric assessment to a hold on your university account. If the University of Oregon actually cared about the well being of their students, they should not have to threaten them to take the steps they want them to take to keep them safe. It became abundantly clear that this policy was in place to shield the University from lawsuits. They are doing the bare minimum. This letter said a suicide screening is required for any student they believe may be at risk yet, they don’t require sexual assault victims to complete this screening after reporting an incident to the Title IX office. Approximately 70% of rape and sexual assault survivors experience moderate to severe distress which is a very common precursor to suicidal thoughts and behaviors (Ibid.). Based on a study of rape survivors in America, doctors from South Carolina determined that 33% of female rape survivors contemplate suicide and 13% of women who have been raped actually attempt suicide (Kilpatrick). This does not include women who do not report their rapes, women who do not report their suicidal thoughts or attempts, sexual assault survivors, and men (who already have a higher suicide rate compared to women). So do they really care or is the University just doing what they need to in order to skate by?

Who gets to decide what is considered a threat to a person’s safety and what is not? Clearly people are slipping through the cracks. When doing a search of suicide risk screenings online, they are typically around 3 to 5 questions. If someone has already decided they want to die, will a 5 question screening do anything? Has anyone been helped by those questions and what comes after answering them? I was told that because I was in therapy they were not extremely concerned with coming up with next steps for helping me. It all seemed superficial and if I did not want to cooperate I could have lied or simply not done the screening. I have not received any check ins as to how I am nearly two years later. Even with that letter, I did not receive it immediately, almost as if it was not urgent enough for them to send a letter and inform me of their “care for my well being”. Why send a letter at all if there is not any actual help for me or my peers? It is yet another illusion of care within the university to avoid civic liabilities.

It seems as though things are not done efficiently here at UO because the institution is incapable of seeing students beyond economic gain. It is not a matter of keeping us safe because if it were, a lot more people would have to complete these risk screenings. Genuine care is when resources are actually offered and plans are created for all students, not just ones at risk. It seems as though the University is selfish and only cares about protecting themselves. That is understandable too, but why not be honest about it?

The UO fails to grasp preventive care and even then it is very case by case. Instead of doing a one and done screening, the university could easily more meaningfully check in on their students after having some sort of suicidal behavior or thoughts. At Brown University in Rhode Island, if you are having a mental health emergency, their counseling center will see you within 15 minutes without needing any prior appointment (Brown Counseling and Psychological Services). When I had to complete my risk screening I was sitting in the waiting room of the counseling center for 45 minutes, and I was told it was not a busy day. It is not just a matter of better policy. The University of Oregon needs to make changes in its core to show more compassion towards its students. Prioritize students in life threatening situations, respond in a timely manner, check in with students and keep them informed. All of these things seem so basic, but to a corporate machine, there is no need as long as their reputation stays pure and their hands appear clean. At the University of Oregon suicide prevention is nothing more than an illusion of care to maintain a reputation precluding negligence.

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