Two more students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have died, rocking a school already mourning the deaths of four students last year.
School officials say the two recent deaths occurred while students were at home on winter break. Nabil Johnson died of an epileptic seizure in Ohio, and Nathan Morin died by suicide in New Hampshire.
Johnson was a 25-year-old online graduate student studying robotics with a love for hockey, according to his obituary. Morin was a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student in his senior year who, his obituary read, “could find fun in almost anything” — and was an expert marshmallow roaster.
Six students have now died since July 2021, three of them by suicide.
Suicide has been an issue on Massachusetts campuses for years with more than 214 students taking their own lives between 2007 and 2016. Mental health experts say stress and depression brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and forced physical distancing has exacerbated the problem nationwide.
In a recent message to students, WPI President Laurie Leshin called the recent deaths “unsettling” and “deeply upsetting.”
“As a university, we expect to launch our students into their futures, and it is jarring and painful to lose them,” she said. “If you are struggling for any reason, please reach out to a friend, a colleague, a family member — or any of the faculty and staff who, I promise, care about you deeply. We are here for you.”
Since the start of the pandemic, several schools across the country — including Dartmouth College and University of North Carolina — have lost multiple students to suicide. A national survey last spring by the American College Health Association found one in four students have screened positive for suicidal thoughts, and 2% had attempted suicide in the previous 12 months.
At WPI, students have been raising concerns about mental wellness and the campus’ rigorous academic culture. In November, students held a rally and met with school administrators to discuss ways to address mental health issues.
Andy Li, a senior studying mechanical engineering, wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper, discussing his own experiences with depression and how academic stress dominates campus life at WPI. He said remote learning during the pandemic increased his anxiety and loneliness. Students no longer had clubs and other in-person activities to participate in, so they focused even more on their school work.
“Most of the time I would just try to work. Work and work and work until my problems went away. And when they didn’t I would try to explain to myself how irrational my thoughts and worries were,” Li wrote.
WPI administrators say they’re urgently trying to address mental wellness among students. In response to the deaths last year, the school established a mental health and well-being task force and expanded programs for students and employees on managing stress.
The university also plans to open a center for well-being this year that will teach students about stress management and fostering social connections.
“The more we can emphasize when students are struggling that, ‘There are people here to support you, we’re all in this together’ — that, I think, is what’s going to help,” said Philip Clay, WPI’s senior vice president for student affairs.
Clay agreed the school’s academic culture, including the rush to learn a lot of material over a short period of time, could be part of the problem. He said the task force is reviewing ways to make students’ experiences less stressful.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.