Dartmouth assesses after deaths cast pall over start of fall term


Valley News

Published: 10-03-2022 7:52 PM

HANOVER — At the end of the second week of fall term classes, roughly 500 members of the Dartmouth College community gathered the evening of Sept. 23 in front of Baker-Berry Library to listen to the college’s president, chaplain and student leaders offer words of solace and encouragement following the announcement of two student deaths earlier that week.

“The new academic year — normally a time filled with promise and joy — has been transformed by the tragic deaths of community members, Joshua Watson ’22 and Sam Gawel ’23,” Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon wrote in the message announcing the gathering. “Losing these much beloved and gifted young men in such a short time has dramatically compounded our sadness.”

The Dartmouth reported that Gawel’s mother, Leah, told mourners at a memorial service last week that he died by suicide on campus on Sept. 21. Watson’s cause of death was not clear from his obituary. He died at home in Indiana on Aug. 27 while he was on leave from the college. Efforts by the Valley News to reach the Watson and Gawel families by email and social media were not successful.

The deaths come amid a “mental health crisis on college and university campuses across the country,” Diana Lawrence, a Dartmouth spokeswoman, said in an email, noting that nearly one-third of college students have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and the number of reported cases of student anxiety has increased by 50% over the past eight years, meaning that counseling centers are facing unprecedented demand.

“These conditions were exacerbated, but not caused by the pandemic,” she said. “This is a long-standing problem and it’s getting worse.”

Contributing to the mental health crisis are increasing national concerns regarding social justice, political polarization, health and economic disparities, difficulties communicating across difference, the effects of climate change, geopolitics, assaults on the rights of women and marginalized communities, among other crises, Lawrence said.

Nationally, the suicide rate increased 4% in 2021, according to provisional data released by the federal government on Friday the Washington Post reported. There were 47,646 suicides in 2021, which brings the rate to 14 per 100,000 people, up from 13.5 per 100,000 in 2020.

The increase in suicide deaths is sharper among younger people, and men and boys. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10-34. Suicides also are completed overwhelmingly by men and boys. In 2021, male suicides outnumbered female suicides 4 to 1. The increase in female suicides in 2021 was not statistically significant, the report found.

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The Vermont Department of Health announced on Tuesday that it was launching a new initiative to reduce suicide rates, which are at a 25-year high in the Green Mountain state. In 2021, there were 142 suicide deaths by Vermont residents, the highest number and rate recorded in the state. As with the national numbers, the rates are higher among younger people, ages 15-34, for whom suicide is the second leading cause of death. Information about the Facing Suicide VT initiative is online at facingsuicidevt.com.

Mourning together

“We move so fast here,” David Millman, Dartmouth’s student body president, said to those gathered in front of the library last week. “It’s alright to not be OK. (It’s) alright to pause (and) be there for your friends.”

The speakers were occasionally interrupted by sobs from members of the audience. At various points, community members offered each other hugs.

Scott Brown, Dartmouth’s interim dean, said the best antidote to these losses is more community. While Brown said that the college has made efforts to improve mental health services, “one size will not ever fit all.”

The “best we can do is care for one another,” he said.

The Rev. Nancy Vogele, Dartmouth’s college chaplain, urged the students gathered not to confuse their academic successes with measurements of their worth.

“You are more than enough,” she said. “... Never confuse the hard work as a measurement of your worth.”

Vogele spoke of simple acts of kindness and compassion she had observed in recent days, including students who had distributed cookies they had baked; a staff member who waited with a “deeply distressed” student until a counselor arrived; and notes of kindness cafe workers had written on customers’ drinks.

Such acts, she said, “remind us of the goodness in this place.”

Vogele encouraged those gathered to leave notes for the Watson, Gawel and Simpson families. Two tables were set up for the purpose on the grass in front of the library with paper and pencils, as well as containers labeled with the students’ names. Many students did as Vogele encouraged. Some used each other’s backs as clipboards while writing.

Kaitlin Kolb, a member of the class of ’25, said she didn’t know the students who died, but she and several of her classmates came to the event because they were struck by the losses. She said her notes to the families focused on letting them know that the Dartmouth community was there for them.

Nearby Emily Wangenheim, also a ’25, said she didn’t have much to say, but the messages she wrote for the families expressed “love and support.”

At least one family seemed to have gotten the message. Leah Gawel, Sam’s mother, posted a note of thanks to Facebook last Monday.

“For the meals, shopping, driving, cards, texts, emails, treats, schlepping, planning, checking-in, shivas and everything in between,” Gawel, a Piermont resident, wrote. “Words cannot properly convey our gratitude. Just as Sam expressed in his final words, he knew he was loved — and so do we.”

Isabel Hillman and Moonoka Begay, both members of the class of ’23 and of the undergraduate society Panarchy, lived with Watson in Panarchy’s house part of last school year. They also are both studio arts majors as Watson was and knew him through classes in that department.

“He was a really great artist (and a) kind, nurturing person,” Begay said in a Friday phone interview. Begay said Watson’s art — drawings and paintings — was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and other Black artists who had come before him.

“He was always just really fun to run into in the house,” Hillman said. “He would always kind of light up a room.”

Hillman and Begay said they suspect Watson had struggles with his mental health that he didn’t share with others around him.

Creating space

The announcements on Sept. 21 of Watson and Gawel’s deaths came following the assault of a graduate student near campus the previous weekend, as well as the recent cancer death of Alex Simpson, who graduated in June, and the August deaths of Richard Ellison, a graduate student whose wife told The Dartmouth student newspaper he likely died of a heart attack in Hanover, and of David Gallagher, a member of the class of 2020 who died after being found severely injured under Ledyard Bridge following that class’s pandemic-delayed celebration of commencement.

On Thursday, the college announced the death of Luke Veenhuis, a 30-year-old research assistant and software engineer who worked at Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. He died at home in Wisconsin on Sept. 26 of “natural causes” according to his online obituary.

Throughout the week, various groups on campus created space for students to mourn. The Dartmouth delayed its publication “to give our staff members the time and space they need to honor and grieve the losses that have occurred on campus,” according to a message posted to the school newspaper’s website.

“As Dartmouth students, we often carry extensive burdens and do not give ourselves the grace to process or to begin healing,” The Dartmouth’s editors wrote. “For our staff at The Dartmouth and for the larger campus community, we hope that this message encourages everyone to prioritize the care they may need.”

Editors of the Mirror, a weekly student publication, acknowledged the recent student deaths in an editor’s note posted to The Dartmouth’s website on Wednesday.

“Our friends and classmates aren’t meant to grow old only in our memories,” the editors, Caris White and Meghan Powers, wrote. “They’re meant to grow old in real life. Every single life cut short is a profound tragedy, and we don’t want to pretend like it’s just another week at Mirror.”

White and Powers said that the Mirror had fewer stories than usual last week.

“Some writers weren’t able to finish their assignments, and that is completely OK,” White and Powers wrote. “It’s acceptable — even encouraged? — to drop the ball during times like these. Take a moment. Ask for an extension. Set an NRO (non-recording option). There are more important things, really.”

Calls for more change

While they appreciated the attention the college gave to the deaths with the Sept. 23 event and the increases in mental health support the college has put in place in recent years including following the deaths of three members of the class of ’24 in the 2020-21 school year, some students say the college still has work to do to support students’ mental health needs and address elements of the college’s culture that encourage students to take on too much.

Hillman, one of Watson’s friends, said she found it “just really shocking that classes weren’t canceled,” the day after the college announced Watson and Gawel’s deaths.

In a Tuesday op-ed in The Dartmouth, Kyle Mullins, a former editor-in-chief of the paper, said that the college has made some improvements since the members of the class of ’24 died, at least two by suicide.

The college has hired some additional counselors, is giving students access to a free subscription to Headspace meditation app, held the Sept. 23 event, sent several messages alerting students to resources available to them and extended the deadline for the non-recording option. But Mullins said those changes are insufficient.

“There have been no college-wide policy changes about academic leniency, no permanent expansion of the NRO policy, no plan for long-term counseling options, no adjustments to the loathsome medical withdrawal policy and — most of all — no broad recognition that the culture on this campus must change from one that moves on from death to one that seeks to prevent it,” Mullins wrote. “... How many more deaths will it take to make a difference?”

The Dartmouth columnist Max Teszler similarly asked in a Thursday op-ed that the college make changes such as allowing counselors to provide long-term therapy beyond Dartmouth’s 10-week terms; and altering the college’s medical leave policy, which some have criticized as discouraging students from seeking help when they are struggling.

Teszler also called for culture change at Dartmouth that encourages a slower pace. For example, he suggested spreading organic chemistry over three terms instead of the current two.

“And no, this is not acceptable simply because at Dartmouth ‘things move quickly’ or because it’s the way it’s always been,” Teszler said. “Practices like the way we teach orgo break our students — whether it be just in that one class or the accumulated stress of being pushed a little too far term after term.”

On Tuesday, the college announced it would suspend classes on Oct. 21 and pause other activities through about 3 p.m. that day to allow students, faculty and staff to participate in a “Day of Caring,” a day-long series of programs, speakers and activities focused on mental health and well-being.

On Wednesday, the college announced that beginning Nov. 1 — due in large part to student advocacy — all students with a valid Dartmouth email account will have free access to licensed mental health counseling services via phone, video, and chat, through a new partnership with the student teletherapy provider Uwill.

Some of the college’s efforts have seemed to Hillman, one of Watson’s friends, like “damage control,” but she said she was encouraged by the upcoming availability of the teletherapy, which she called, “a big push in the right direction.”

If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 988.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.]]>