At JMU, shaken students demand better mental health services

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Following two suicides on campus in the last week – as well as shootings on the campus of Bridgewater College and Virginia Tech – JMU students are calling on university officials to better address the mental health needs of young adults desperate for better resources.

University officials say they are listening. President Jonathan Alger and other university officials participated in a student-led vigil on campus on Monday night, and have been meeting with students and taking suggestions on how to help.

The recent tragedies have brought to a head two years of isolation, loss, and sorrow for students at JMU and across the country, who worry there will never be enough professional help available to meet their needs.

Tragedy on campus

The first suicide occurred in the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum last week.

According to the Virginia State police, a body was found in the woods at 1:30PM on Monday, Jan. 31.

In the following days, the killing of two police officers at Bridgewater College and a shooting at a vape shop in Blacksburg shook the campus and raised anxieties further.

Then on Monday, Feb. 7, a man allegedly jumped to his death from the Grace Street parking garage. The Breeze, JMU’s student-run newspaper, reported that two witnesses saw the man jump.

Virginia State Police are also investigating the second incident, and have not released either victim’s name.

In a campus-wide email Monday night, university officials said that while their understanding was the man was not a JMU student, faculty or staff member, “this has shaken all of us.”

Jake Conley, editor-in-chief for The Breeze, said the events of recent weeks come on the heels of two extremely hard years for students. (Conley, a senior, has contributed to The Citizen).

He and others at The Breeze have been reporting extensively in the last week about the growing crisis over mental health services on campus. Conversations about that have escalated in the last week, he said.

“All of those events combined in rapid-fire succession have really put a lot of the tension on the mental health situation here,” Conley said. “It’s pushed a lot of students to really acknowledge the fact that they see a need for more.”

He said he hears lots of frustration from students about the lack of mental health support on campus.

“I think we are seeing a lot of emotion from a student body that’s fed up with what they see as a lack of attention from the administration,” Conley said.

According to Tim Miller, vice-president of student affairs, demand for mental health services on campus since the pandemic began is “unprecedented.” He added that more students are coming to college already in therapy and on medication.

“We are seeing higher numbers, but also higher severity in those numbers,” Miller said. “We saw this already before the pandemic, but the pandemic definitely exacerbated it.”

“If you think about these students, they have already missed two years of college, [or] a year of high school and a year of college, so they have lost a lot,” Miller said. “It’s really impacted them.”

Not enough help to go around

Miller said that campus counselors are working around the clock to help students in crisis, and still taking appointments. The university also offers a 24-hour crisis hotline for students. Miller said counselors are working really hard to reach all students in crisis, and find help for those who ask for it.

But Conley said that students are telling The Breeze that wait times for counseling have gotten longer and longer. In addition, he said, students are being told there is no space for individual counseling, and group counseling is the only option.

“They don’t want to open up to a room of strangers they may run into in the dining hall,” Conley said.

JMU had already expanded its mental health services during the pandemic. Miller said the university has added eight mental health professionals to the counseling center, four additional staff to the Dean of Students office, and a 24-hour crisis counseling line for students.

Conley said that while students appreciate what the university has done to improve mental health services on campus, it hasn’t been enough.

“What we want to see is increased resources for the counseling center, and increased funding going that way,” Conley said. “Measures that allow people to get help – impactful help.”

After the week’s events, students gathered to protest Thursday afternoon in Alumnae Hall to demand better mental health resources from the university.

Conley said that they students were angry and refused to meet with university officials who came to the protest.

“None of the students went with the administrators,” Conley said. “They are refusing to go to the table because they feel like they have tried that repeatedly, and nothing has happened. So they have moved into the area of protest and action.” 

University officials are trying to listen and react accordingly.

Miller has taken suggestions from students in the last few days and has begun to implement some of them.

He outlined many of the university’s plans in a blog post Thursday. In it, Miller said that the university has created a Suicide Risk Reduction Taskforce, and will be implementing protocols that the task force recommended to identify ways to deter individuals from harming themselves. He also outlined additional staff training and telehealth options that they plan to utilize.

Conley said that university officials have admitted to Breeze reporters that they cannot “out-staff” the growing crisis on campus.

“I don’t think that if you had 20,000 counselors for the 20,000 students here – I still don’t think it would be enough,” Conley said. “I don’t think anything is going to be enough, honestly. I think we just have to do the best we can.”

Miller said that he wants students to reach out before they feel they are in crisis.

“We want to say to our community that they are cared for and loved, and we want the best for them and want them to be safe and to take care of themselves and each other,” Miller said.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

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