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Student Suicides Rise, Part 2

Luke Tang was heading into the spring of freshman year at Harvard University in 2015 when he attempted to take his own life.

A skilled violinist and math whiz and the youngest son of Chinese immigrants, Tang survived the attempt and was whisked away to a psychiatric facility under Harvard’s purview. To return to his studies, school officials required that the 19-year-old sign a contract promising to follow his doctors’ treatment plan.

But Tang did not keep up with mental health services after going away for the summer. And Harvard officials apparently did not check up with him upon his return in the fall. About two weeks after arriving on campus, Tang killed himself in the basement of his college dormitory.

Since then, his parents Christina and Wendell Tang have been searching for answers.

“We thought he was fine,” Christina Tang said in a phone interview from her New Orleans home. “We thought when he got out of the hospital, he got his help.”

Between 2007 and 2017, nine Harvard undergraduates in Massachusetts took their own lives, according to an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Six of them, including Tang, were of Asian descent. Asian Americans only make up about 20 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate student body.

Harvard officials declined to comment on these numbers or on Tang’s suicide. But his death is prompting concerns about the particular vulnerabilities of Asian students at Harvard and other rigorous schools across the United States. It also is raising new questions about the responsibilities of universities to prevent suicides on campus.

Last fall, Luke’s father filed a lawsuit in Middlesex County Superior Court against Harvard and several employees for allegedly failing to protect his youngest son from self-harm. The case builds on a 2018 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that found schools have a “limited duty” to prevent suicides if they know a student is at risk.

Harvard’s attorney said in a recent court hearing that the university more than met its responsibility by getting Tang help in the spring. But Wendell Tang’s attorney David Heinlein says Harvard officials should have reached out to the young man when he returned from his summer vacation to make sure he was following his treatment plan.

“They should have said, ‘How did your summer go?,’” Heinlein said after the hearing. “’Before you get back in the heat of the classes, we want you to meet with the appropriate people.’ They did nothing.”

Tang’s parents also have questioned their own role. Christina Tang says she wishes she took her son’s struggles more seriously. She wishes she told him she loved him more. “He didn’t want us to worry,’’ she said. “All he did was try to make his parents proud.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students across the United States. And numbers are on the rise. In Massachusetts, 214 students between the ages of 18 and 24 died by suicide between 2007 and 2016, according to state public health records. That’s a 43 percent increase from the prior decade.

But most of these stories remain untold, shielded by grieving families seeking privacy and universities’ reluctance to publicize such tragedies. This reticence has prompted some suicide prevention experts to call for more openness. Dorothy Hutchinson, director of services for the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, says silence can add to problems.

“Silence is deadly,” she said. “We're promoting this idea of secrecy around struggle, and secrecy around suicide, and secrecy around mental health issues, which then perpetuates the prejudice and the fear.”

To learn more about what happens on college campuses, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed state public health records that detailed who died by suicide and scoured obituaries and other news sources to determine where they went to school. Among the findings for college-age students between the age of 18 and 24:

  • At least 18 students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst killed themselves between 2007 and 2016, the largest number of suicides at any college campus in the state during that time period. Amherst also has the largest student population in the state.
  • MIT and Harvard suffered the second largest number of suicides for that age range during that period, both with eight. Two other Harvard students, an undergraduate student and a law student, both of Asian descent, died in 2017.
  • Several universities suffered multiple suicide deaths in a single calendar year: Among them, three Boston University students killed themselves in 2016 and three Wentworth Institute of Technology students took their own lives in 2015.

None of the schools would confirm numbers. Officials from UMass Amherst say they don’t track suicide deaths because of challenges collecting information, especially when a student dies off-campus or on break. They did confirm that the students NECIR identified went to UMass.
All of the schools said they are working to address the increasing mental health needs of students. About 14 percent of college students say they seriously considered suicide over the past year, more than double the number from a decade ago, according to the national Healthy Minds Network, which surveys student mental health.

Students suffer from isolation and anxiety, facing academic, social and financial pressure. Most grew up in the years post 9/11 — in an atmosphere tainted with fear and high-profile school shootings, said Sarah Lipson, associate director of the Healthy Minds Network.

Asian students are said to have the greatest “unmet need” for mental health counseling, with only about 23 percent of students who need it seeking help, according to data from the survey.

Christina Tang said when Luke first attempted suicide, she didn’t understand the severity of what was going on. She thought mental illness was like a common cold that could be quickly cured. She says neither her son nor Harvard told her about the contract he signed to get help. If she’d known, she said, she would have made sure he complied.

“We didn’t know about the follow ups,’’ she said.

Luke Tang’s Story

Luke Tang was born in Hawaii, the youngest son of a tight-knit family focused on education and achievement. His family moved to Louisiana when he was 11 years old, where he attended a public high school for high achievers. He was a dedicated member of a Baptist church, a presidential scholar and an orchestra leader, friends and family say.

He felt intense family pressure to succeed, says childhood friend Lucy Wang. He was religious but started to question the meaning of life. Wang said that after Tang’s first suicide attempt, she tried to impress upon his parents the seriousness of his depression. But they didn’t understand, she says.

“He probably didn’t know anybody who had ever gone to therapy,” she said.

After Tang died, his parents read his notes and diaries and began to understand his suffering. They participated in a documentary, "Looking for Luke," in hopes of educating other families about depression and mental illness, particularly among Asians.

The documentary has resonated with health specialists, families and students across the country. Nationwide, Asians between the ages of 18 and 24 die at lower rates of suicide than other youths their age, federal data shows. But at some elite schools, numbers are skewed.

Jenn Fang, who produces a blog focused on Asian issues called Reappropriate, first became concerned about the issue while studying at Cornell University. The school in 2006 published a report that found 13 of 21 students who died by suicide over 20 years were of Asian descent. She’s frustrated by the lack of good data about deaths on colleges nationwide.

“If we don’t understand how race influences the experiences on campus, resources will never be adequate,” she said.

After Luke’s death, a group of Harvard graduate students started a conference called “Let’s Talk’’ to raise awareness about mental health issues for Asians and Asian Americans. Luke’s brother Richard was invited the first year, and the second year the documentary was screened at the event.

Josephine Kim, a professor who specializes in mental health issues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says Asian students struggle with cultural perceptions — both from within and outside of their own communities — that they should be high performing and shouldn't need help.

“You are supposed to be perfect,” she said. “And if you are so perfect, then it’s weird if you reach out for help.”

Adding to challenges, she said, is that when students do seek mental health services, they find themselves forced to explain their culture to health care staff. Of the 58 staff members at Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services, only two are Asian, according to Harvard officials.

Jenny Hsi, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health, says students of color can find it a burden to explain themselves to white counselors.

“There’s a great sense that counseling and mental health services are for white people,’’ she said.

Harvard has been trying to hire more Asian counselors, said Barbara Lewis, chief of Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services. But they’ve had little luck recruiting.

“If I could find another Asian or Asian-American clinician, I would really jump on that,” she said.

What Should Universities Do?

By filing a lawsuit, Luke Tang’s father put a new focus on a university’s responsibility to prevent suicide.

The case builds on a 2018 ruling by the state’s top court, closely followed across the U.S., that says universities have a duty to try to prevent self-inflicted harm when they have “actual knowledge” of an earlier suicide attempt or of a student’s intent to die.

The judges ruled that MIT was not responsible for the death of 25-year-old graduate student Han Duy Nguyen. Nguyen was living off-campus and had not let MIT know about his suicidal intentions, the court said.

In a hearing earlier this month, an attorney representing Harvard, Martin Murphy, said that the SJC decision set out specific steps that a university must take when it is aware of a student at risk: Initiate a suicide protocol or arrange for clinical care. Or if such care is refused, reach out to a student’s emergency contacts.

Murphy said Harvard more than complied by sending Tang to a psychiatric facility, requiring him to sign a contract for clinical care and following up when he was released. By September, he said, the suicide was no longer a recent event that prompted new action.

“By putting this very robust set of referrals in place in the spring, Harvard not only fulfilled its duty but essentially vastly exceeded its duty,’’ said Murphy, an attorney with Foley Hoag in Boston.

Last week, Judge Michael D. Ricciuti denied the university’s motion to dismiss the case. He said in a court ruling, “Harvard’s simplistic interpretation of the ruling is erroneous.”
He said the SJC decision doesn’t imply that a university has satisfied its responsibility simply by following a “check box” of steps.

A status hearing is scheduled for October.

Luke’s older brother Richard, training to be an emergency doctor in New York, says he hopes the lawsuit will push Harvard to provide more resources for troubled students.

“I just wish fewer families as possible have to endure this,” he said.

Jenifer B. McKim is a reporter at WGBH's New England Center for Investigative Reporting is based out of WGBH news. Boston Globe Reporter Todd Wallack and students from Boston University’s investigative reporting clinic contributed to this report.

Student reporters were: Anastasia Lennon, Prithvi Tikhe, Nikita Bubnov, Mariya Amrayeva, Hedy Yang, Geoffrey Line, Linlan Luo, Camila Beiner, Dennis Hackett III, Gaia De Simoni, Yidan Sun, Mia Ping-Chieh Chen, Jackie Contreras, Laura Albast, Hannah Schoenbaum and Daniela Rivera.

The Harbus Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism provided financial support for this report.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline -- 1-800-273-TALK (8255) -- is a free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.

Crisis Text Line is a free text-message service providing 24/7 support to those in crisis. Text 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor any time.