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Zero Suicide is not just a Dream. We CAN make it Reality.

One student's opinion on addressing suicide risk on college campuses.


Eleanor Clemans-Cope, February 23, 2024, The Daily Princeton



Back in February 2023, our Princeton community found itself in profound grief after the passing of Maura Coursey GS. In October 2022, we mourned Misrach Ewunetie ’24. This February, we find ourselves grieving again for two more students, both first-years, lost. There is a mental and behavioral health crisis on this campus.


As I wrote last February, if Princeton had the national average rate of suicides among 15- to 24-year-olds, there would be one death each year. One death would still be too many, but our community has experienced tragedy far beyond that: We have grieved seven preventable deaths in the past three years.


This is heartbreaking and unacceptable. But leadership is defeatist, disengaged, and complacent: At the Council of the Princeton University Community meeting on Monday, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said that “there are tragedies that take place, even when people do all the things that they should be doing.” 


This perspective is dangerously misguided. While peer institutions have struggled to find sufficient solutions to the mental health crisis, we can look to clinical settings to find successful programs that are increasingly proving the inspiring reality that at a committed, effective organization, suicide is preventable. Individual support, from a loving friend or parent, is not enough to reach zero suicides — this is a challenge that must be taken on by organizations. Princeton can be that organization.


The “Zero Suicide Approach” is effective at dramatically reducing suicide rates, although its implementation has so far focused on clinical settings. In implementing these evidence-based practices, a mental health center in Maine decreased suicide deaths by 60 percent, a New Hampshire mental health center decreased suicide deaths by 44 percent, and the Betty Hardwick Center for mental health in Texas got to zero, among many other success stories. Although these are mental health institutions with many high-risk patients, this approach is applicable to Princeton: We have the need for it, and we have the resources to screen, identify, and support every student that needs help. We can bring the Zero Suicide approach to the world of residential communities. This approach is not just a possibility but a necessity for the University.


So how do we achieve this? 


Right from the start, the leadership of Princeton University — administration, faculty, USG, CPS — must fully embrace the Zero Suicide core value: “the belief and commitment that suicide can be eliminated” on our campus. This leadership piece is by far the hardest part. That’s why, at the beginning of this school year, I called for President Eisgruber to step up or step aside. This is still his burden. We must demand better. What we need now is new leadership. 


And with that new leadership, we need to appoint a “Zero Czar.” The idea of appointing a czar to address a mental health crisis is not new, but a Zero Czar would be new for universities. This person, a top administrator with a singular focus on preventing student suicide, must have the trust and confidence of the student body and access to as much money as they need to achieve the goal — don’t worry, the University can afford it


Eisgruber’s misguided remarks give the false impression that a comprehensive strategy is already in place, but this is far from the reality. The Zero Czar has plenty to work on. The Zero Suicide approach has a few core strategies, with many components that Princeton hasn’t tried and none at the scale and depth that is necessary.


First is comprehensive suicide prevention that reaches every student. This would require an enormous and game-changing investment in evidence-based clinical care. We would start with a simple two question universal annual screening with follow-up questions for those with a positive screen. The continuum of care must reach a huge expansion of free, high-quality, immediate, evidence-based, unlimited clinical care at McCosh with supports as small or as intensive as students need — a departure from now, where some Princeton students are not able to access basic mental health care. Treatment must be provided with the “no wrong door” attitude — anything that a student does to indicate that they want or need care should be enough to get them immediate access to free, high-quality care. 


The continuum of care for suicide prevention also encompasses state-of-the-art suicide postvention to support those at heightened risk after an event. As part of an effort to continuously improve, the University should also conduct a confidential internal review of every death on campus to examine the context and delivery of care in order to identify specific areas for improvement, similar to the CDC’s Maternal Mortality Review Committees (MMRCs). 


From these reviews, the University needs to update its lethal means safety — “making a suicide attempt method less available or more difficult to access immediately” — after every event. Although the University has already put a number of precautions in place, they can do better. The window of time between contemplating suicide and taking action can be alarmingly narrow — often less than ten minutes — and contrary to the common belief that individuals determined to end their lives will simply find another means if their preferred method is unavailable, evidence strongly suggests otherwise.


Another important strategy is an extreme culture shift towards viewing suicide prevention as a collective responsibility of our campus. To support this, leadership must put in place new evidence-based community structures to promote a radical increase in connectedness and belonging. The practical implications mean not just further supporting student social activities, but also recognizing the crucial role every campus employee plays in fostering student connections with every community member— every interaction has the potential to enhance students’ sense of belonging. When a student feels disconnected, encouraging interactions with instructors and graduate students can fill crucial gaps. This means all campus relationships are critical components of a comprehensive strategy to nurture a supportive and interconnected campus community.


The Princeton community must abandon the insidious idea that suicides are inevitable. These deaths are preventable, and the University leadership has a duty to act. This is not just an aspiration, but an achievable goal. By adopting an informed strategy, Princeton will be a model of a safer, more supportive academic community. We can and should demand this from our University.  


Eleanor Clemans-Cope (she/her) is a sophomore from Rockville, Md. intending to study economics. She spends her time making music with Princeton University Orchestra and the Triangle Club and good trouble with Sunrise Princeton. She can be reached on Twitter at @eleanorjcc or by email at eleanor.cc@princeton.edu.


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