By Mai-Lan Spiegel
VCU Capital News Service
RICHMOND – When a college student commits suicide, it can shake the campus to its core, as other students struggle with grief, perhaps guilt and a range of emotions.
Beginning next school year, public colleges and universities in Virginia will have to offer counseling and other services to students after such tragedies. The requirement is the result of Senate Bill 1430, which was unanimously passed by the General Assembly this year.
“The board of visitors of each baccalaureate public institution of higher education shall develop and implement policies that ensure that after a student suicide, affected students have access to reasonable medical and behavioral health services, including postvention services,” the bill states.
It defines “postvention services” as “services designed to facilitate the grieving or adjustment process, stabilize the environment, reduce the risk of negative behaviors, and prevent suicide contagion.”
SB 1430 was proposed by Sen. Bryce E. Reeves of Fredericksburg. Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed it into law in March. It will take effect July 1.
Existing law requires colleges to have procedures to identify and help students who may be suicidal. The new law goes a step further by mandating what schools should do to help other students after a suicide.
Virginia Commonwealth University, among other schools, already offers postvention services after a student death. Last fall, for example, two VCU students died after falling from the Towers on Franklin apartment building. Jordan Bowman, 18, died in September, and Emma Pascal, 19, in October.
Authorities have not ruled the deaths suicides. However, some news outlets initially reported that the students had “jumped” to their death, implying self-infliction. Experts say that such gossip can lead to suicide contagion or “copycat suicides.”
This phenomenon is also known as the Werther effect, after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 18th-century novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” David Phillips, asociologist at the University of California at San Diego, coined the term in 1974. In his research, he found that suicides seemed to rise after a well-publicized suicide.
“Hearing about suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have the permission to do it,” Phillips said.
An associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Dr. E. David Klonsky, said that when a suicide happens nearby, it can make other people see suicide as an option.
“Learning that someone from one’s community has died by suicide, especially when the person is a peer or colleague, can make suicide seem more realistic and attainable, especially if the method of suicide has been publicized and is available to others,” Klonsky said.
Emma Pascal’s mother, Cindy Pascal, who is a mental health counselor, said she supported Reeves’ bill.
“Even if it is a death that is questionable, there should be counseling provided to kids because the adolescent brain is amazing and brilliant but it also very fragile,” Pascal said.
Dr. Jihad Aziz, the director of Student Counseling Services at VCU, said the bill won’t affect the university greatly because it already provides postvention services.
“If the death of a student is on campus or near campus, we go to the site for support, and it’s part of our postvention and intervention services,” Aziz said. “We will also go to the classrooms and faculty. Students who are grieving come in without having to fill out paperwork, and they always have access to our crisis line.”
Aziz said VCU has a range of suicide prevention services and activities. For instance, every year, the university holds an Out of Darkness Walk, aimed at raising suicide awareness. Also, resident assistants and other dormitory staff members receive “Question, Persuade, Refer” training to recognize when a student is showing signs of distress.
Help is available to prevent suicide
If you or somebody you know is struggling with self-harm or has suicidal thoughts, contact a counselor. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. VCU also has a hotline at 804-828-3964.