Nine male students at the University of Southern California have died so far this semester, at least three from suicide and four from suspected overdoses. Three of them died over four days, starting Nov. 8.
“Students are pleading for answers from the university,” said Natalie Bettendorf, managing editor of The Daily Trojan student newspaper. “There’s a sense of desperation from within the student body. There have been too many deaths and not enough answers.”
Administrators at the private university in Los Angeles are trying to quell fears and answer questions. USC President Carol L. Folt confirmed the deaths last week and said the university was “doubling down” on educating students about drug and substance abuse. “And in particular, we’ve been also talking about the real risks of mixing opioids and prescription drugs and alcohol because we are concerned about that,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
USC administrators sent an all-campus letter last week warning about drug and alcohol abuse and reminding students of available mental health services and counseling. The school, with an enrollment of more than 47,000 students, increased the number of mental health counselors on campus by nearly 50 percent this fall to 45 counselors and four psychiatrists, the Times reported. A website called Trojans Care 4 Trojans allows students, faculty, and staff to submit an anonymous form if they have concerns for another person on campus. Staff with the Office of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention review and respond to the submitted forms.
Ambivalence about life drives both suicides and drug overdoses, Paul Nestadt, a Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor, told the Times. “They are both kind of going up at the same time, almost twin epidemics.”
The suicide rate for people ages 10 to 24 in the United States rose by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October. Suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death behind accidental injury (car crashes, drownings, and drug overdoses) in that age group. The drug overdose death rate for adults has historically been highest among those in their 30s and 40s and lowest for people younger than 25 and older than 65. But rates among college-age adults are rising, according to the CDC.
Christian colleges and universities can speak to substance abuse and provide addiction recovery services in ways that secular schools can’t, said Lilly Ettinger, the assistant director of wellness and recovery at Baylor University. In 2017, she helped launch the Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center (BARC) at Baylor, a Baptist school of about 17,000 students in Waco, Texas. The BARC is on the first floor of a Baylor dorm in a busy part of campus and serves about 60 students a week who are struggling with addiction or in recovery.
Baylor was the first Protestant college or university in the United States to launch an addiction recovery center, according to Ettinger. She said faith and addiction recovery have a natural connection: “We are a school that believes in redemption and resurrection.”
Ettinger often tells students struggling with addictions they are made in the image of God, a foundational truth that fights ambivalence. But she couldn’t make that statement freely if she worked on a secular campus. The BARC provides contemplative prayer twice a week, along with secular and Christian abstinence-based recovery meetings in the evenings.
The center hasn’t been around long enough to measure its success rate, but Ettinger said it has opened the doors for healthy communication about drugs and alcohol, something the Baptist school struggled with: “Having the BARC on campus has enabled us to have conversation we didn’t know how to have before.” She also said it matters to parents who are dropping off their 18-year-olds at college for the first time, many of whom tell her, “I’m glad this exists. I hope my child doesn’t need it, but I’m glad it exists.”