The Sunday Read: ‘The Unthinkable Mental Health Crisis That Shook a New England College’

Adrienne Hurst and

Rowan Niemisto and

The first death happened before the academic year began. In July 2021, an undergraduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute was reported dead. The administration sent a notice out over email, with the familiar, thoroughly vetted phrasing and appended resources. Katherine Foo, an assistant professor in the department of integrative and global studies, felt especially crushed by the news. She taught this student. He was Chinese, and she felt connected to the particular set of pressures he faced. She read through old, anonymous course evaluations, looking for any sign she might have missed. But she was unsure where to put her personal feelings about a loss suffered in this professional context.

The week before the academic year began, a second student died. A rising senior in the computer-science department who loved horticulture took his own life. This brought an intimation of disaster. One student suicide is a tragedy; two might be the beginning of a cluster. Some faculty members began to feel a tinge of dread when they stepped onto campus.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is a tidy New England college campus with the high-saturation landscaping typical of well-funded institutions. The hedges are beautifully trimmed, the pathways are swept clean. Red-brick buildings from the 19th century fraternize with high glass facades and renovated interiors. But over a six-month period, the school was turned upside down by a spate of suicides.

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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Isabella Anderson, Anna Diamond, Sarah Diamond, Elena Hecht, Emma Kehlbeck, Tanya Pérez and Krish Seenivasan.

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