Beau DuBray felt at peace on his family’s ranch near the Missouri River in South Dakota, with its horses and roaming buffalo. Quiet and kind, the 18-year-old carried a deep respect for his Lakota heritage, his family said, and was troubled by American society’s rejection of Indigenous wisdom and destruction of the natural world.
Last fall, amid a global pandemic, DuBray took his dream of helping to bridge the cultural gap to Hanover, N.H., where he began his studies at Dartmouth College. In November, he took his own life.
Six months later, his family and friends are still trying to understand the mental health struggles he faced, as are the loved ones of two other first-year students who also died of suicide this year at Dartmouth, an unusually high number of such deaths in a single year.
The deaths have devastated the small Ivy League campus of about 4,000 and sparked deep outrage among students, who say the school’s mental health resources have been woefully inadequate during an academic year blighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In op-eds and makeshift memorials and red paint splattered on the driveway of the college president’s home, students are ending the year in grief-stricken protest, criticizing the school for what they say were overly strict social safety protocols that failed to take into account the deep toll they took on students’ psychological health.
“It was isolation like I’d never known isolation,” said Robert Abel, a Dartmouth first-year from New York.
Now, as the pandemic winds down and vaccination rates soar on campuses, Dartmouth and other schools are assessing the damage caused by pandemic distancing and taking steps to help students heal. But many undergraduates say it is too little — and, for some, too late.
Connor Tiffany, 19, a selfless and outgoing Dartmouth first-year from Virginia, died in Boston in March, in what friends say was also suicide.
Elizabeth Reimer, another first-year from Long Island, N.Y., killed herself in mid-May after the college sent her home involuntarily, following a previous suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization. A competitive dancer known to burst into a gleeful cartwheel at family gatherings, Reimer, 18, had begged to stay on campus.
“How many times do I have to tell you that the worst thing for me would be getting sent home?!!” she wrote in a social media post a few weeks before her death, according to a copy of the post shared with the Globe by her friends at Dartmouth.
The day she died, her family said, Reimer had received an e-mail from the college’s assistant dean informing her that she might have to wait another year to complete her first year of college if she withdrew from a course in which she’d fallen behind, amid her struggle with anxiety.
“It just seems like mistakes were made, maybe not with intent, but unfortunately the conclusion is irreversible and horrific and the biggest hole in our world,” said Reimer’s aunt Linda McNicholas.
Research has begun to document the degree to which the pandemic has disproportionately devastated the mental health of young people. More than 60 percent of people ages 18 to 24 experienced anxiety or depression during the pandemic, according to research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest rate of any age group. One in four seriously contemplated suicide, also the highest rate of any age group.
“This age group, the sense of belonging and connectedness with peers and being part of a community is key to their identity,” said Nance Roy, a professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School and the chief clinical officer at the Jed Foundation, which works to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among young people.
Colleges, however, have struggled to create policies that keep students safe without destroying the sense of community on campus. A candlelight vigil on the quad this month to remember the three first-years, as well as with a third year who died of a medical condition, was the first time all year the entire campus community had been invited to gather together.
Public health protocols varied among New England colleges and universities this year but many have been relatively stringent, like Dartmouth’s. Many students have been living in and rarely leaving single rooms; many classes are held on Zoom; and social gatherings in dorms and off-campus excursions were severely restricted or forbidden.
Amid a rise in virus cases this spring, Bates College, in Maine, forbade students from leaving their dorm rooms except to receive a COVID-19 test, pick up a meal, use the restroom, exercise alone outside, get a vaccine, pick up a prescription, or visit the doctor. All classes went remote during that time.
Last November, Wellesley College canceled all food at events on campus, except in the dining hall, to prevent extra instances where people would take off their masks. In December, it required students to resign from off-campus jobs, citing the rising infection risk.
The remote setting of the Dartmouth campus, students said, and the many months of cold weather, made the isolation feel especially intense.
Roy said schools this year had no choice but to prioritize physical safety during the pandemic, but the majority have now turned their focus to mental health. For young people in particular, she said, closeness is crucial for healthy development.
To date there is no indication that the campus suicide rate has risen nationwide over the last year, but mental health on campus was already precarious before the pandemic; the suicide rate among young people has tripled since the 1950s, she said.
For many first year students, the year was particularly dispiriting. Many older students already had a network of friends to lean on, but first-years were often forced to adjust to college life and academics from a solitary dorm room, trying to make friends on Zoom or from behind a mask.
In the fall at Dartmouth, students moved in mostly alone, then underwent a two-week quarantine and attended orientation via Zoom. It was a full five weeks before Abel, the first year from New York, had a real face-to-face conversation with someone, he said. It was his resident assistant.
The college’s efforts to help, he said, seemed misdirected. Staff focused on ways for students to de-stress, at one point offering kits to make glitter jars, an arts and craft project distributed after students received a COVID-19 test, but didn’t focus enough on “addressing the root of the problems, which is intense loneliness, extreme academic stress,” he said.
At Dartmouth, the severity of the pandemic’s toll on students has come into devastatingly clear focus just as the threat of COVID-19 has begun to recede, thanks to vaccinations. Two days after Reimer’s suicide, college administrators announced a series of steps to address mental health.
A Dartmouth spokesman declined to make an administrator available for an interview, but pointed to the letter President Philip J. Hanlon sent to students announcing the policy changes.
“The pandemic has exacerbated many problems, but foremost among them has been mental health. On this critical issue, we must do more to support our community,” Hanlon wrote in that letter.
With more than half of students, faculty, and staff now vaccinated, the letter said, the school would ease social distancing protocols, allowing up to three students to gather together in a dorm room, and up to nine students to meet together informally or organize formal gatherings of up to 25 people.
The college also announced that it will adjust its academic policies to give students more time this semester to request a pass/fail or incomplete grade for a course.
The school also pledged to hire additional counseling staff and to begin working with the Jed Foundation on a four-year program to improve mental health on campus.
And, in a reversal, Dartmouth recently announced it will allow students to bring two guests to the in-person commencement ceremony later this month. Originally it planned not to allow guests at all.
Several students said these efforts should have come earlier. One student had pleaded with administrators to make changes after the first two deaths.
The day after Tiffany died, Matthew Capone, a first-year from Boston, e-mailed President Hanlon with the subject line “You Need To Quit.” Capone described how he had helped prevent yet another student from killing himself while they were both home in the Boston region during the winter term, ultimately calling the police and having his friend hospitalized.
“What should have been done was a prioritization of as many safe social interactions as possible,” he wrote.
To his surprise, the president responded. “I am heartbroken over the losses of Connor and Beau. Their untimely deaths are felt so deeply,” Hanlon wrote, also asking whether Capone was seeking his own mental health counseling.
Capone said he was.
DuBray’s parents said they are still trying to learn more about their son’s death. Five months after he died, they received the police report, but it left them with only more questions, said his parents, Fred and Michelle, and sister, Elsie, in a statement to the Globe.
“As far as we knew, everything was fine,” they said.
The DuBray family has created a memorial fund to try to address the high rate of suicide among native youth. They also hope it will bring together families who share their pain.
“We are so very sorry for your loss,” they wrote in a statement to the Globe, speaking publicly to the families of the other two students, “and want you to know you are not alone.”
If this year has revealed anything, they said, it is how pervasive mental health struggles truly are.
“If we could get to where people understand and accept mental health issues as easily as we understand and accept physical health issues, then people with mental health issues will more readily come forward and seek the help they need,” they wrote. “Until then, they will suffer in silence and feel alone in their illness.”