UofSC student feels ‘cycle of pain, guilt’ after multiple student suicides

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Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 4:46 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Kennedy Caskey has fallen into an anxiety-inducing routine.

More than three times this semester she has called her Mom in distress after hearing of classmates who have taken their own lives.

“For the very first person who took their life on campus, I called my Mom and I said, ‘Mom this just happened. And this is so sad,’ Then two weeks later I had to call her again, and I said ‘Mom, I actually knew this person,’ then two passed after that I called my Mom and said, ‘There is another person who lost their lives and I knew them, too,” she said.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in the U.S., according to a study conducted over the course of a year during the pandemic.

The University of South Carolina is not immune to this trend and students like Caskey want to see the school do more.

“It’s almost as every single person is experiencing overwhelming stress overwhelming depression, anxiety to levels they’ve never experienced before,” she said.

In her public health class, she sees the pain of her classmates in real-time. Caskey’s professor uses an anonymous message board to give her students the chance to talk freely about their own experiences with mental health.

Behind a username, students said they are frustrated with how mental health is being addressed on campus.

In addition to being confused and stressed by learning about some deaths by word-of-mouth, Caskey says she went to counseling on campus but left not feeling helped or supported.

“I went and they said, ‘actually we can’t really help you, so we recommend you go see someone else,’” Caskey remembered being told. “Well, how am I supposed to? How do I get to see someone else? How do I get to that experience? Also isn’t that what you are here for to make me feel safe and better?”

Another one of Caskey’s classmates said when she went for help, she was told to go for a walk to cope with anxiety.

“Mental illness is a national public health problem that has increased since the pandemic, and our university is not immune...One-on-one counseling may be the best option for some students and is a service we do offer. However, for many students, learning how to effectively manage and cope with normal daily stress does not require individualized counseling and/or psychiatric care,” Stensland wrote in an email to WIS.

He said they have a team of mental health professionals who help the university decide what information to release about a student dying by suicide.

“No two situations are alike, and we are always cognizant that reading about a student’s suicide may create additional anxiety and suicide ideation for those who are in crisis. We also must balance potential family concerns and their desire to maintain privacy,” Stensland said.

However, students see these measures as temporary fixes or not adequate and they take the silence on some suicides as a signal that the administration does not prioritize mental health.

Dr. Mindi Spencer started using the anonymous chatroom in her classes and quickly found that most of her students were in pain.

As a developmental psychologist researcher, Spencer says the importance of social experiences for 18-22-year-olds can’t be overstated.

“When it comes to emerging adulthood, that’s the time so many students are trying to figure out who they are,” Spencer said. “Identity exploration, finding friends, finding love, finding their voice, and that’s something they haven’t been able to do because of this pandemic.”

Spencer says a lot of her students fall in a mental health gray area. They are not in immediate danger, but they also need support.

“We need to talk about that chasm between the crisis point where a person may need to be walked in for actual inpatient crisis care and the point where something is off...so in a time of a mental health crisis they feel they have the tools to get through it,” Spencer said.

For Caskey, the feeling of constantly hearing about these deaths while also coping with her own mental health is a cycle of pain and guilt.

To make matters worse, she doesn’t always feel comfortable going to friends with her emotions because she knows they are also dealing with their own burdens.

“How can you ever help somebody if you’re running on empty? Even if you want to, you want to so bad, and you feel exactly what they are feeling...but if everyone is running on empty, how can we get past that? How can you help the next person?” she asked.

This online forum is just one place where these students can be this honest and students say it’s a rare space.

Caskey believes at the foundation of all of these issues is the stigma surrounding mental health that she says is still prevalent on campus.

She says “there’s a tiny, itty bitty little crack” in the stigma, but to save lives more needs to be done.

If you or someone you love needs help they can reach out to free texting and call services for support.

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741
  • UofSC Emergency Crisis Line: 803-777-5223

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