Dealing with Death at WPI (Part 2)- Change Needs to Happen

Published 11 months ago -

Written by Maureen Lynch

*Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide. If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide call 1-800-273-8255*

Three students in three months. Since the last time I reported on the WPI suicides, there have been three more deaths. Some of these cases are still under investigation but one thing is certain; the WPI community is hurting. And the problem does not seem to be getting much better.  

Between the Fall and Spring semester of the 2021-2022 school year, seven WPI students have died. Many have been ruled suicide cases. The school itself has been relatively quiet when it comes to addressing the issue. Through my research on the topic, there is relatively little media coverage.  

“It was hard,” said a WPI student, “Many of them were in my grade level…there was a of feeling that I, too, had felt that pain and seeing that that’s how they had tried to solve it because no one was hearing their pain was- it invoked a lot of fear and pain.” 

I spoke with two students who have been involved in trying to promote change at WPI. Christian Chadwick is a senior and serves on the E-Board for the Mental Health Committee which is affiliated with WPI. The committee is not an official club and does not receive funding from the school, however they do work in collaboration with WPI to address the mental health concerns on campus. The student whom you just heard from is the creator of the Demand for Change WPI Instagram Page designed to give a platform for student grievances about the situation. This student asked that they remain anonymous. These two students have been fighting for the administration at WPI to recognize the lack of mental health resources on campus and provide support to the community.  

To begin to dissect the issue, one must first understand that like many top institutions WPI has a specific culture around schoolwork. Chadwick and creator of the Demand for Change page both reported that there is a culture around academics, referred to as the WPI mindset. They have stated that failure is heavily stigmatized on campus. Most of the time it goes unspoken. Combined with the competitive nature of many of the programs, a failed exam or a botched paper takes a serious toll on students’ mental health.  

“It’s gotten more competitive and the reason for that is online classes,” said Chadwick, “because the biggest thing at WPI is that you need to understand that everyone has failed an exam…the only way that that gets better is if you are more open about, ‘yeah, I failed the exam.”’ 

Another main issue cited by the creator of the Demand for Change page is that the workload at WPI is challenging to say the least.  

“Depending on the class you can have long assignments that would take hours and hours to complete for multiple classes. And the lab work. The lab work feels very condensed…they put all that lab work on top of the regular work. So, you end up spending upwards of sixteen hours a day in the lab.” 

This combination, along with the added stresses of learning and living through a pandemic, is believed to have been the catalyst for many of the suicides. However, this is pure speculation. 

What is not speculation, however, is that the state of mental health throughout the community is low. Students are having a hard time connecting with one another and finding ways to have fun when they get some free time. Chadwick has been working remedying the problem.  

“I think a huge part of it is that it’s hard to feel alone, like when you are out line dancing,” said Chadwick. “What I have been focusing on is trying to find things to do in and around Worcester so that people have things to do.” 

However, this proves to be difficult when students find themselves constantly isolated due to the changes created by the pandemic.  

Another major issue is communication. “Nobody knows what’s going on,” continued Chadwick, “Everyone thinks there is nothing going on but they are holding events on campus, they just aren’t telling anyone.” 

Systemic issues at WPI and the catalyst of the recent deaths have propelled students to mobilize. After the fourth death back in November of 2021, there was a Memorial Walk organized by the then newly minted Mental Health Committee. This group of students, Chadwick told me, are attempting to address student grievances surrounding mental health.   

The WPI administration has made several attempts to address the situation, but they have not been well received. The most prominent of these has been the Be Well Together Initiative, an email series that was first started in 2020.  

“It was an attempt at letting people know that WPI is there for you kind of thing,” said Chadwick. “To be honest, I don’t think I even read [those emails] … I don’t think it was incredibly effective.” 

The Mental Health Committee soon took matters into their own hands and began to make suggestions and plans to impact the growing mental health crisis on campus. They have begun to speak to the administration to get support for things like a plan for restructuring the mental health system on campus and getting the word out to students that there are events and places to go on to not feel isolated.  

However, beginning in at the end of January 2022, students still were not seeing many changes, and they had lost more classmates. From the anger and frustration and fear surrounding the situation, the Demand for Change WPI Instagram page was born. The first post appeared on January 26th.  

“I had been sitting in the background and giving the administration the benefit of the doubt that change was going to happen,” said the creator of the Demand for Change page. “But students kept passing away… I just felt powerless, and I had grown tired of no one hearing us and no one was acknowledging our pain… I needed something to tangibly be like, ‘I am making a difference.”’ 

The creator described how the page has been a hub for students and faculty to express their pain and feel heard and understood by others. The page has gotten mixed reviews with some saying that some of the messages posted have been too blunt or triggering to read, others say that it is not respecting the families of the deceased students. However, one thing is clear- the page has reached 1,424 followers in a about a month, proving that the page has made an impact on the community.  

Now, WPI is trying to move on from the recent losses. The Center for Well-Being at Worcester Polytechnical Institute is beginning to take shape as the prestigious school named Paula Fitzpatrick (who used to work as a dean at Assumption!) as the director for the center earlier this month.  

Both Chadwick and the creator of the Demand for Change page have both been trying to move forward too.  

“My personal goal is- I know it’s not going to be the exact same as it was my freshman year but I want to get it moving in that direction,” said Chadwick, “I want people to be having fun outside of going to a fraternity or you know, sports or Greek life.” 

“You aren’t failing life by falling short,” said the creator of the Demand for Change page when asked about what advice they would give to someone struggling with mental health challenges. They stated that internal reflection is key. “You have to feel it on the inside and know internally, ‘I am worth this.” 

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