Worcester Polytechnic Institute has opened a space on campus to help students with mental wellness, following a drastic increase in student suicides over the past two years.

The new Center for Well-Being is meant to be a relaxing “oasis” where students can detach from work and decompress. It features zen sand gardens, a water wall, rooms for yoga and meditation, instruction on how to cope with stress, and trained student staff to speak with anyone in need of assistance. Administrators say the center's focus on programming will work in conjunction with the school's existing mental health counseling services.

“We’re really focusing on intervening before there’s even a problem emerging — really building those strong foundations for habits that are going to support them through college, as well as through their life,” said the center’s director, Paula Fitzpatrick.

The opening of the facility comes after the deaths of seven students within about a six-month period between 2021 and 2022. Four of those deaths were confirmed suicides, two others were suspected suicides and one was due to a medical condition, WPI administrators said. The school reported just two student suicides in the prior 15 years.

During an official unveiling of the new Center for Well-Being Thursday, WPI Dean of Student Wellness Charlie Morse described that six-month period as a nightmare in which the campus community was “holding on, trying to get through day to day, bracing ourselves for the next round of bad news.”

Studies have shown mental health worsening among college students nationwide. At WPI, a 2022 report concluded academic pressure and uncertainty about where to find wellness resources on campus have been among the biggest threats to students’ mental wellness. Some students said the school’s term system was a main source of stress.

Unlike universities with two 15- to 17-week semesters every academic year, WPI has four faster-paced, seven-week terms. Although school administrators considered changing the system in response to the suicides, Morse said they decided not to because they believe terms give students more flexibility with classes. If students are overwhelmed during a term, Morse said the school invites them to drop classes.

Still, some students are concerned rigorous course schedules will continue to cause stress.

“This school is definitely a lot,” first-year student Leslie Kahugu said. “It’s very fast, and I feel like I don’t pay as much attention to my mental health as I should.”

WPI Center for Well-Being
WPI's new Center for Well-Being is meant to be a relaxing “oasis” where students can detach from work and decompress.
Sam Turken GBH News

WPI has taken other steps to improve mental wellness, including hiring four more counselors and case managers and giving students six “wellness days" off from class each year. The school also has extended daily hours during which students can speak with licensed therapists.

Administrators had been planning the Center for Well-Being for years but expedited those plans in response to the student deaths. Morse said the new facility, which sits on the main quad next to the dining hall, will serve as an inviting hub for mental health support in a central location — something the campus previously lacked because the main mental health counseling office is down the street from the quad.

If people enter the center in need of crisis support or with other urgent health needs, staff will direct them to new student health and counseling offices, which are adjacent to the well-being facility.

“What this center brings is a holistic approach to well-being,” said WPI interim President Winston Soboyejo. “And it's not just of the body, it’s of the mind and spirit. And for us, that's really a new territory that's come about through lots and lots of dedicated professionals really thinking about this.”

Students on Thursday applauded the creation of the center, saying it’s been overdue. Graduate student Isabelle Mellor has spent five years studying at WPI, during which she said she’s had some struggles with her mental health. Mellor said the new center sends a message to students that mental wellness is a priority on WPI’s campus.

“I want to make sure that people feel they have a support system, they have people around them that care … and it’s never too late to reach out,” she said.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. More resources are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.