Coping with Campus Tragedy

Last year, William and Mary lost four students to suicide, leading to collective hand wringing and extensive media coverage. The Dean’s office sent emails – lots of emails. Emails about counseling support for students. Emails listing suicide warning signs. Emails that urged faculty to be understanding of students struggling academically as a result of these tragedies.

As helpful as all of this was, I still had a problem. Both of the courses I taught that semester, medical history and dying in nineteenth-century America, included content that might have trigger students in the wake of the recent events. The anguish touched the whole campus and, it being a small school, many of my students knew at least one of those lost to suicide.

I struggled with how to handle it. I knew I didn’t want to talk about the suicides in class. I’m not a mental health professional and I didn’t feel comfortable trying to take on that role. I also knew I didn’t want to ignore it. Too many of my students were suffering and I felt I had a responsibility to help students work through their complicated emotions. At this point, I began to realize that I could address the situation through the courses’ content, as difficult as that was going to be.

My medical history class syllabus included a unit on mental illness and psychiatry that we were supposed to cover during what turned out to be the week after the last suicide. Fortunately, it was late enough in the semester that I knew my students well enough to make an informed decision about how to handle the content. I decided to go ahead with the unit and explained to my students my reasoning. I told them that we had a responsibility to better understand these issues, past and present, and the best way to approach the content was directly and with maturity. This tactic worked for this 200-level course and the students seemed responsive.

I took a different approach with my dying in nineteenth-century U.S. freshman seminar. The course explored different ways nineteenth-century Americans met their demise and the final unit was on suicide. I felt that this may be too much for freshman and so I gave them a choice. We could either continue with suicide as our finial topic or we could swap it out with a section on corpse preservation. Each student then submitted two hundred words justifying his or her choice. This gave them an opportunity to explore their thoughts and feelings on the subject in a way that continued to improve their writing and did not disrupt the class. Not surprisingly, the students chose corpse preservation and many of them felt it was too soon to talk about suicide.

When coping with this kind of tragedy, flexibility is key. Knowing your students is essential to successfully navigating a difficult time and transparency and empowerment ensures that students are “with you” in your decisions. Developing potential courses of action is difficult and potentially disastrous without a firm understanding of the class dynamic. In instances where you make an executive decision, it is important to fully explain your reasoning – not because you “owe” them but because it fosters an open environment in which students understand why certain choices have been made.   Finally, empowering students in the decision making process can yield positive results that best suit the needs of the students.

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