Numerous Student Deaths Rattle WashU and SLU Campuses

click to enlarge Two students and a resident physician at Saint Louis University have died in the last two weeks. - Riley Mack
Riley Mack
Two students and a resident physician at Saint Louis University have died in the last two weeks.

Loss and grief have become commonplace on the campuses of two of St. Louis’ largest universities following numerous recent deaths, raising questions about the schools' mental-health service programs.

Since classes began in the fall at Saint Louis University and Washington University, six students and a resident physician have died, four in the past two weeks. Of the seven deaths, four were suicides, while the cause of death in the other three cases have not been announced. (Both schools do not release cause of death information without consent from students’ families.)

An email to the SLU community from administrators on Friday mourned the suicide of undergraduate student Sean North.

North died on April 5, according to the email, shortly after emergency services transported him off campus. According to his obituary, North came to SLU from Leawood, Kansas, on a swimming scholarship, and was an avid sailor and an Eagle Scout.

“Right now, our focus is on wrapping his loved ones with support,” reads SLU’s email. “Know that we share this information so we can help each other heal. We cannot destigmatize death by suicide, ideation or mental-health needs more broadly if we cannot name them.”

Days before North’s death, a SLU graduate student died from undisclosed causes, the school's president, Fred Pestello, announced in an April 6 email. And yesterday, Pestello and Vice President of Medical Affairs Christine Jacobs informed the SLU community of the passing of a resident physician, who died late Sunday evening. No further details were provided.

These deaths followed two student suicides on SLU’s campus less than two weeks apart last fall. One student — who has not been named — took their life in a public area of campus on Sept. 11. Nine days later, a 22-year-old student, also unnamed, died by suicide in a residence hall.

At Washington University, Chancellor Andrew Martin and Vice Chancellor Anna Gonzalez wrote last week of the passing of senior engineering major Anamika Basu, who died on April 3.

“Out of respect for the privacy of Anamika’s family during this difficult time, we are not sharing any additional details about her passing,” Gonzalez wrote.

Basu’s death followed the suicide of WashU sophomore Orli Sheffey, who took her life on Feb. 11.

Nearly 1,000 people gathered for a vigil in honor of Sheffey, who studied political science and previously worked as senior news editor at the university’s student newspaper, Student Life.

The newspaper temporarily ceased publication following Sheffey’s death, before resuming online publication a month and half later under a new editor in chief.

“Orli was a friend to so many and cared so deeply about creating a better world, both in general and on this newspaper,” wrote outgoing editor Matthew Friedman in a public letter on March 31.

Friedman described Sheffey as a “staunch advocate” for mental health. Since the pandemic began, Student Life has reported extensively about the school’s mental health services, noting that campus resources are “really overwhelmed” and that in certain instances some students are “fed up.”

Following the two SLU suicides in the fall, over 9,000 people petitioned the school to implement improvements to its counseling center. Six new student support groups formed at SLU this semester.

In a statement to the RFT, SLU spokesman Clayton Berry said additional staff have been added to the university’s counseling center, to increase the availability of walk-in support and extend evening hours.

The campus schedule has been supplemented by “well being” days, featuring mental health programming and canceled classes. Further, a task force has been formed to implement actions recommended by members of the university’s community.

“The university also opened drop-in spaces on campus that are staffed by SLU employees to serve as a place for students to study and be in community,” Berry adds.

Suicide has long been the second leading cause of death among college students, second only to accidents. A global pandemic only exacerbated an epidemic of youth mental illness that was already on the rise.

Berry says SLU “recognizes that young people everywhere are experiencing a mental health crisis and that the pandemic — with its isolation and separation from loved ones – has contributed to a distressing climate of uncertainty, fear and sorrow.”

“SLU is doing everything it can to support its students and to ensure they have the resources they need.”

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About The Author

Monica Obradovic

Monica Obradovic is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times.
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