The first student loved Legos, the quiet camaraderie of hours spent alongside his classmates, piecing the tiny bricks into intricate designs of his own invention. The second played the bass guitar and liked venturing with his friends through the virtual worlds of Pokémon Go.
The third was a heavy metal fan who shared their time at Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a circle of friends from their fraternity. The fourth, an Eagle Scout, led a Boy Scout trip to the vast wilderness of northern Minnesota; he spent the pandemic learning cooking and beekeeping.
All four were students at WPI, a rigorous school filled with students who excel in science and technology, and have an eclectic array of other interests. And all four died in the last five months — three from suicide, and one from an apparent suicide, according to death records, the school, and family members.
Now students, professors, staff, and administrators are confronting almost incomprehensible grief as the institution finds itself on the front lines of the national conversation about student mental health.
Students on campuses across the country have spoken out for years about the need for better systems to support their mental health. Now, after nearly two years of missed personal milestones, profound loneliness for so many, and a steady beat of suicides, the conversation has taken on an unprecedented level of gravity and candor.
“The urgency is greater than it has ever been, and we need to focus on reducing the stress that everyone is feeling,” president Laurie Leshin said in an interview. “Any campus that experiences the loss of a young person, it’s devastating. And this has been.”
Even before COVID, research showed the rate of mental health struggles among students had been rising for some time; the pandemic only exacerbated the situation. In the 2020-21 academic year, 41 percent of students nationally reported symptoms of depression and 34 percent reported anxiety, according to data from the 2021 Healthy Minds Study, which regularly surveys students across the country about mental health. More than 14 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide in the past year, more than twice the rate in 2007.
Higher education institutions have become critical providers of mental health care for young adults, especially those who come from communities or families where mental health services are inaccessible or stigmatized. For years, many campus leaders have been reluctant to admit that their students struggled with mental health, but the isolation and trauma students have faced over the past two years have sent schools scrambling to improve their offerings at the same time they navigate constantly changing COVID-19 protocols.
The deaths at WPI come at a time when, because of the pandemic, the nation as a whole has begun to talk openly about mental health in ways that are unprecedented in this country. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy this month raised concerns about the mental health of young people in a stark report that called for action.
“The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate,” he wrote. “Our obligation to act is not just medical — it’s moral.”
WPI is not alone in grieving students who have taken their own lives in recent months. Two students died by suicide this semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and two more at Saint Louis University. Three students have died at Santa Clara University this quarter, two by suicide. Earlier this year, three first-year students died by suicide at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Last week, Northeastern announced that a student died in the library in an apparent suicide.
Since many campuses have returned to in-person classes this semester, administrators like Leshin have worked to balance the need for some pandemic-related restrictions, like mask-wearing and quarantines, with students’ deep need to socialize, make new friends, and gather in person.
Following a number of breakthrough COVID cases early in the semester, WPI paused some gatherings and shifted others online for two weeks, then resumed in-person schooling and activities. Leshin said the campus has leaned toward allowing students to gather whenever possible; even so, she said, staff have sometimes found many needed coaxing, since they had gotten out of the habit.
After each of the deaths, Leshin has informed the campus by e-mail, in two cases writing that the families had asked the administration to publicly acknowledge the mental health struggles of their children, and that they died by suicide.
The first suicide came in July, that of Jiyang “Jeffrey” Wu, a senior. The robotics and mechanical engineering double major founded the WPI Lego Club and volunteered to drive students to and from a nearby church he attended.
“Lego building has always been a social activity in my life,” he was quoted saying in a WPI news story about the club in 2019. Wu talked about how he loved to discard the instructions in the Lego box and instead build his own creations, including a proportionally accurate model of the British battleship HMS Nelson.
WPI did not disclose the cause of Wu’s death to students; the Globe confirmed he died of suicide through public records.
In August, Leshin shared news of the second death: Lorenzo DeSimone, she wrote, an Eagle Scout who loved his bass guitar, horticulture, and playing Pokémon Go and League of Legends. The computer science major also struggled with anorexia and anxiety, she wrote, and ultimately lost his battle against those mental health challenges.
“If this feels like an unusually intimate disclosure of information, it’s because it is,” Leshin wrote. “Lorenzo’s family has given us permission to share these details because they don’t want his death to be in vain.
“They want to highlight the fact that mental health challenges are real, and asked that WPI use this moment to encourage any other community members who may be struggling to please seek help.”
DeSimone’s mother, Kim, said WPI could not have been a better partner during the years when they were grappling with DeSimone’s mental health struggles. When he was hospitalized last year, she said, the school was flexible, offering multiple options for how he could pause his studies. After his death, she said, Leshin and her staff provided strong support for her family and those closest to her son.
At the wake, she said, a long line of young people filed through to greet her, friends of her son from different parts of life. Many of them, in tears, quietly admitted they had also considered suicide, and that they were depressed, she said.
“We didn’t want anything to be hidden,” she said. “We wanted people to know, as devastated as we are to lose Lorenzo, if it helped one person consider another option, we were hopeful.”
In September, WPI shared more grim news: Liam Godin, known as “Jyn,” a junior studying computer science, had also taken their own life. Godin was a member of the Sigma Pi fraternity, and had a passion for fountain pens and heavy metal music, she wrote.
Then, last month, the school lost Ronan Banavige, a member of the class of 2025 majoring in mathematical sciences. Banavige’s father, Joe, said in a statement to the Globe that he does not fault the university in his son’s apparent suicide.
“To blame WPI, and to minimize the struggles of our son down to the space he occupied on his last day, is to minimize the real possibilities for mental health progress that can be identified and achieved going forward,” he wrote.
Joe Banavige said his son loved beekeeping, rock climbing, and cooking. His greatest passions were Boy Scouts, the wilderness, and high adventure.
Banavige said that students need better care but also relief from what he called “cultural contributors” to mental health.
The extreme political division in the country, social media, “cancel culture,” the availability of illicit drugs, and an overreliance on pandemic-related restrictions, like masking and virtual learning, contribute to students’ mental health challenges, he said.
“The culture in higher education needs to return to one of free idea expression, accommodation of perspectives [across the political spectrum], and the allowance for and forgiveness of mistakes,” he said.
Experts say this kind of transparency around mental health is important for progress.
“While it’s hard to see news like this, it has been positive to see more conversation around young adult and student mental health,” said Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that promotes mental health among young people.
College administrators are beginning to recognize mental health as a public health issue, and to take a more systemic approach to addressing it, she said.
Students today define mental health very broadly, taking into account stress that comes from academic troubles, financial worries (often related to the exorbitant expense of college), racial discrimination, and anti-LGBTQ bias. Students need more than just therapy, Horn said; they need communities where they feel a sense of belonging, as well as tools to address issues such as finances and study skills.
“We need policy, sustaining change, not just programs. And we need every department on campus to be involved,” she said. Student input, Horn added, is also crucially important.
WPI has responded to the deaths in a variety of ways over the course of the semester, lengthening the fall break, expanding programs for students and employees about managing stress and recognizing distress, hiring two additional mental health counselors, and canceling classes for a day in November to focus on well-being. The administration has also appointed a task force to recommend longer-term improvements.
Even before the pandemic, the school was working to launch the Center for Well-Being at WPI, which will teach students about stress management, healthy coping strategies, and fostering social connections. It is scheduled to open in the new year.
“We need to be willing to look at everything, and question everything, and take an all-hands-on-deck approach to build campuses where student well-being is at the center of everything we do,” Leshin said.
She said the institution also needs to help faculty and staff, who have also weathered crises and are expected to support students.
Since the earliest weeks of the pandemic, Leshin has been a statewide leader in the higher education community’s response. A space scientist by training who worked for a time at NASA, Leshin is the first woman to lead WPI and has been president since 2014. In the spring of 2020 she was tapped by the governor to be part of the state reopening advisory board, and she led a group of 14 college leaders that met weekly to determine how to reopen campuses, an unprecedented level of cooperation among universities of all sizes.
That kind of coordination continues even at this phase of the pandemic, Leshin said. Just a few weeks ago, she said, 40 college leaders convened on yet another Zoom meeting, this time to talk about student mental health.
But WPI students say changing the campus’s culture will be difficult. Andy Li, a senior studying mechanical engineering and fire protection engineering, recently wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper titled “I am not fine,” discussing his own mental health issues.
He said WPI is dominated by ambitious students who pile more and more onto their plates. Remote learning during the pandemic aggravated academic stress because students did not have clubs or extracurricular activities to fill their time, so they focused more intensively on their classes.
Li said many students at his school are reluctant to share their struggles, so he saw his column as a way to help normalize the conversation. The newspaper made the column a regular feature and invited students to submit their own pieces.
“On campus it almost feels like life as usual is going on, which I wouldn’t say is great, because it almost feels like we’re trying to move past it, but not exactly in a productive way,” said Li, an international student from Taiwan.
Several hundred students gathered recently on the school’s quad to mourn the students who died. For Li, attending the vigil was a powerful experience; he learned that suffering from anxiety or depression is far more common than he realized.
“Part of the culture around WPI is people are talking about work, work, work — people don’t usually talk about how they feel,” he said.
Another student, Jack Baker, said in an interview that he attempted suicide multiple times last semester in his off-campus apartment. After the news of the fourth student’s death, he recorded a video recounting his own mental health journey, which started when he was diagnosed with severe depression at age 10.
“Every time this news comes up, it’s hard to deal with,” Baker said in the video which garnered more than 5,000 Instagram views.
In the video, Baker talked about his positive experiences with treatment and hospitalization, and he reminded students they are not alone.
“The thing about trauma that a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s everywhere. . . . I felt so alone. I had no idea that there were so many people going through such hell,” he said.
Baker, who said he is now in a much better place with his mental health, took last semester off to stay at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont. This semester, he dropped a class to focus more energy on supporting his classmates and advocating for better support and resources for students.
Baker said that almost every other day, a student reaches out. He’s taken multiple students to the emergency room.
“It seems like everyone is in crisis. I knew the situation was bad, but I didn’t know the magnitude until now, " he said.
Globe correspondent Julia Carlin contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to include the correct pronouns for Godin.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide or struggling with mental health issues, help is available. Here are some resources:
Crisis Text Line — Free 24/7 support for anyone in crisis. Text “Brave” to 741-741.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — Free 24/7 support for anyone in suicidal crisis. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Trevor Project — Free, confidential, 24/7. Crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people. 1-866-488-7386. Text and chat options at thetrevorproject.org.
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline — Free, confidential. 1-800-931-2237. Chat option available at nedawareness.org.
National Sexual Assault Hotline — Free, confidential, 24/7. 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). Chat option available at rainn.org.
Disaster Distress Helpline — Free 24/7 crisis counseling and support for anyone experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. Call 1-800-985-5990. Text “TalkWithUs” to 66746.