Responding to campus crisis

April 30, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

This is the first in a four-part series on crisis response and mental health resources on campus. For part two, visit here.

Following the death of sophomore student-athlete Sam Wopat on March 25 and reports of several attempted suicides on campus this year, The Daily has undertaken a survey of existing campus resources and culture surrounding mental health.

Today, we take a look at University reaction in the days and weeks directly following Sam Wopat’s suicide attempt and her death, exploring questions about how the University responds to student death, especially in cases of suicide. Next, The Daily will examine prevention, examining University systems in place to identify and help students in crisis and addressing reports of additional suicide attempts in campus residences. The Daily will then take a broader look at widespread student experience with mental health resources on campus and will highlight efforts to adapt campus culture for the future.

Questions about University policy on communicating the death of a student were doubly present as Cady Hine, a junior English major who worked to establish Stanford Peace of Mind (SPOM) to destigmatize mental health and illness on campus, died on April 1 in her Palo Alto residence, within a week of Wopat’s death. The cause of Hine’s death has not yet been reported.

After a month of interviews, The Daily has compiled details of the night of Wopat’s suicide attempt in her Suites residence and how resident assistants (RAs) and University officials responded that night and in the following days. Several RAs in Suites felt the University response following Wopat’s death was inadequate, while others expressed gratitude for the University’s guidance. In addition, the response – or lack thereof – from the University to the larger student body regarding student death has been a source of tension between students who want information and University officials who seek to respect the privacy of victims and their families.

University administrators cited federal privacy laws, the  Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) when explaining why they are unable to discuss specific cases with The Daily and the general campus.


Crisis in Suites

Resident assistants in Suites were split over the effectiveness of the University’s reaction on the night of Wopat’s attempt and during her weeklong hospitalization prior to her death. Two RAs expressed frustration with a lack of explicit directives on how to address resident questions and emotional responses to Wopat’s hospitalization, though the other Suites RAs said University officials were very helpful throughout the process.

“I don’t feel like the University was there to help us as RAs,” said Kiera O’Rourke ’13.

O’Rourke and Jen Wylie ’13, also a Suites RA, commented that it was difficult not to relay information since many residents were present as ambulances arrived on campus.

“When I came in, I saw all three floors of Jenkins [the house adjacent to Wopat’s residence] – all the windows lighted and people were standing in the window looking,” O’Rourke said.

“You could see the ambulance – the sirens were going on outside,” Wylie said. “People were going to be like ‘What’s going on?’”

Suites RA Elijah Frazier ’12, who said that many students witnessed the presence of EMTs, also said that very little information could be released because very little information was available at the time.

O’Rourke, who acknowledged that Valentina del Olmo, the Residence Dean responsible for Suites, needed to be at the hospital with Wopat, said that having an adult present on campus that night would have been helpful. All four Suites RAs agreed that having an adult presence in the dorm following Wopat’s hospitalization would have been helpful.

O’Rourke said alerting nearby resident fellows (RF) in the Sterling Quad or EAST, Murray or Yost houses could have solved the lack of adult presence, since Suites does not have an RF. She added she did not feel supported by the University in the days following Wopat’s suicide attempt, and that she did not know how to respond to students – as an RA and as a fellow student – following Wopat’s hospitalization. In her opinion, the University failed to give adequate directives to the Suites RAs.

“We really didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It felt very futile.”

O’Rourke said she was told a few days after Wopat’s hospitalization not to convey further information to students who did not know what had happened, but to ensure general resident well-being.

“As an RA you feel hesitant to do the personal thing because you’re part of the voice of the University almost,” O’Rourke added. “You don’t want to act as an RA without the University backing you up. You feel very lost when you don’t have an explicit direction [about what information to reveal].”

Wylie and fellow RA Juan-Carlos Foust ’13 agreed they would have appreciated having more information about what they could and could not say to students.

“I didn’t know what face I was supposed to be wearing,” Foust said.

The Suites RAs announced a vigil held for Wopat two days after her hospitalization, mentioning neither her name or what had occurred.

“Saturday was a hard night for many members of our community,” the RAs wrote to the Suites mailing list. “If you would like to send love/support for those involved, take a trip to Maples Pavilion. At the entrance is a tree from which we are hanging messages, notes, drawings, etc. Materials should be in a brown bag near the tree.”

Some Suites residents attended the vigil and left, without ever knowing Wopat’s name.


“They should have been going around that night”

O’Rourke was uncomfortable with an apparent hands-off approach following Wopat’s death, especially when she was asked by the Suites ResEd supervisor to check up on the residents of Griffin, Wopat’s house within Suites.

“We got an email one or two days later saying, ‘You have to go around Griffin again and talk to each room,’” O’Rourke said. “And I was like ‘Why am I going around Griffin? I think a [Counseling and Psychological Services] counselor should go around Griffin – they should have been going around that night.’”

“I think CAPS counselors should have been here the day after [Wopat attempted suicide] going around Griffin,” O’Rourke said. Wylie agreed.

Communication between RAs and the University also appeared to be a problem. Both RAs expressed frustration with limited prior announcement of an academic advising event held for Suites residents to assess their options for finishing winter quarter coursework while dealing with Wopat’s hospitalization.

“We weren’t even notified about that,” O’Rourke said.

All four Suites RAs said they received emails from administrators commending them for their work during such a difficult time. Foust said the messages felt more reactive than prescriptive.

Frazier said he felt the University response to the RAs was both supportive and appropriate.

“Because ResEd stepped in to support [us] and the University [did] overall – I think there was a lot of support,” Frazier said.

“It seemed that they were very busy but also highly supportive,” Foust said.

“The University said it wasn’t a measure of keeping the situation quiet as much as it was up to the family on what they chose to disclose or not,” Frazier said.

O’Rourke said she understood privacy concerns but got a different sense from the University.

“It seemed to me like they didn’t want us to tell people,” she said.

Dean of Residential Education Deborah Golder said she received feedback from Suites residents about a lack of University presence in the dorm, but stressed that action by RAs is more meaningful than administrator presence and that ResEd coordinated with the Suites RAs.

“We got some feedback from folks who live in Suites, saying ‘the University’s not doing anything for us,’” Golder said. “All of the things that RAs were doing, etc. were our involvement. It feels like ‘the University is not involved,’ but of course we are. What’s more helpful to a student? Me? I think a student who you know is more accessible to you than I am. Maybe those don’t look public enough. That’s not the intention.”


University communication

With the exception of an email ResEd sent to the Suites residential community following Wopat’s death, the University has not sent any direct messages to the student body announcing the deaths of Wopat or Hine, memorial services for the deceased students or existing resources for grieving or stressed students.

On April 2, Vice Provost of Student Affairs Greg Boardman published an op-ed in The Daily announcing Wopat’s death to those who may not have known, stating that the University would likely not offer additional information in deference to family privacy and communicating the availability of campus mental health resources.

On April 17, The Daily ran by op-ed Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean of the Office for Religious Life; Alejandro Martinez, senior associate director of CAPS; and Jim Cadena, director of the Arts in Residential Education program, about their work with Hine.

Still, several students have expressed frustration with a lack of communication about the student deaths, while the University continues to stress the importance of maintaining the privacy of families during times of loss.

Stanford was not the only top university to experience student death in recent weeks. In comparison, the Dean of Harvard College and the Dean of Yale College each sent messages to their entire student populations announcing student deaths that occurred on their respective campuses in the past two weeks. Each University relayed information about the deaths,  the availability of mental health resources on campus and details for vigils via campus-wide emails on the same day the students had died, though neither included suicide as the cause of death in communication to students.

“Harvard never acknowledged any cause of death,” Harvard sophomore Nicholas Rinehart wrote in a Facebook message to The Daily.

“People here are actually pretty upset that Harvard is not taking this opportunity to talk about suicide and mental health in any real way, instead pretending like [suicide] doesn’t happen,” Rinehart wrote.

Stanford Dean of Student Affairs Chris Griffith responded to The Daily about how the University communicates news of student deaths, saying that Stanford defers to the privacy concerns of family members and does not have a specific policy on broader dissemination of the news.

“Our immediate response when one of our students dies is to support the student’s family, friends, and others who are impacted and to ensure that they have access to University resources that provide help and comfort,” Griffith wrote in an email to The Daily. “Our response does not require a specific notification to the community; but rather we evaluate the circumstances and consider the need for privacy of family members and of students and others who are impacted at Stanford as well as regulations that may prevent us from releasing information.”

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Greg Boardman wrote to The Daily that he thinks the University can balance the privacy needs of families while having an open dialogue about suicide.

“We always work hard to respect the privacy of individuals,” Boardman said. “Each situation poses its unique circumstances, and, often there is much that the University is unable to disclose. Yet, we always engage with open dialogue on the associated topics on mental health and suicide, broadly.”

This policy has upset some students, and Ron Albucher, director of CAPS, said he understands where that frustration originates.

“I totally get why students feel frustrated about this – because there seems to be a lack of communication from the University to the student body about it,” Albucher said. “The University struggles with balancing the needs of the students with the privacy issues of the families involved. And that’s where the University has sided more.”


Silence on Cady Hine

The silence surrounding Wopat’s death wasn’t the only cause of frustration for some students. Stanford lost another student on April 1, when Cady Hine, a junior with a history of bipolar disorder who worked to address the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness on campus, died while on spring break at the age of 24. No additional news of the circumstances of Hine’s death has been reported.

The Stanford Report announced Cady Hine’s death on April 6, and The Daily printed an obituary on April 17, along with the previously mentioned op-ed. No official University communication was sent.

Helena Bonde, a fifth year senior who befriended Hine when they met in 2008, expressed frustration with how long and through what channels news about Hine’s death and memorial services traveled, especially at the late response of both the University and The Daily.

“I was pissed that there wasn’t more news about [Cady’s] death,” Bonde said. “ I mean, Cady was a really wonderful member of our community and there wasn’t even a Daily article until after her memorial service – which was two weeks after her death.”

Bonde said she did not find out about Hine’s death through either the Report or The Daily.

“I found out about it from a friend emailing me because she’d seen someone link to the Stanford News update website-thing – that I’d never even looked at before in my life,” she said. “There are probably quite a few people who didn’t even know about Cady’s death until after the memorial.”


Part two of this four-part series on mental health will examine crisis prevention on campus, including training of Residential Education staff, and University response to student mental health crises.

Kristian Davis Bailey is a junior studying Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. A full time journalist/writer and occasional student, he's served as an Opinion section editor, News writer and desk editor for The Daily, is a community liaison for Stanford STATIC, the campus' progressive blog and journal, and maintains his own website, 'With a K.' He's interested in how the press perpetuates systems of oppression and seeks to use journalism as a tool for dismantling such systems.

Login or create an account