Columbia University making changes to mental health resources after student suicides

ByCeFaan Kim, Eyewitness News WABC logo
Friday, February 3, 2017
Columbia University making changes to mental health resources after student suicides
CeFaan Kim reports from Morningside Heights.

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, Manhattan (WABC) -- There are changes coming to Columbia University and the way they handle mental health crises after one student spotlighted the shortcomings of the school's services.

"I come from a predominant Hispanic immigrant family so getting to go to an Ivy League school like this was a huge accomplishment for my whole family. I was really excited," said Jacqueline Basulto, a Columbia senior.

It was supposed to be Jacqueline Basulto's proudest achievement.

The Staten Islander made it to Columbia University, but she quickly felt suffocated.

"I just always felt like I wasn't working hard enough," Basulto said.

Then last fall things spiraled.

Basulto felt isolated.

So alone, she started having really dark thoughts.

"I felt like there was no getting back to my normal self and there was just no purpose to keep going on," Basulto said.

So the senior reached out to the hotline for Columbia's Counseling and Psychological Services.

She thought she'd find comfort there, but she says that wasn't the case.

"I was put on a wait list for a preliminary phone call. Four days later I got a phone call. I told the person that I was having horrible pain and that I had ideations of hurting myself and she said the first available appointment is in two weeks. And I said, 'OK that's fine, but what should I do until then? I don't know what to do with myself; I'm really scared right now.' And she said, 'I'm not really sure what you mean, we have a lot of students. I can't help you sorry,'" Basulto said.

Basulto's story is part of a disturbing trend at Columbia.

Students say there have been nine suicides in the past decade.

Seven of them happened this school year.

Student leaders say counselors are overworked and staffing is inadequate.

"Midnight is a huge time of concern because all the work, that's when students are doing most of their work, a lot of the pressure comes in at that time, but we don't have the resources where there's a counselor that's available to speak to at that time," said Dave Mendelson, Columbia College Student Council.

Basulto meanwhile turned to off campus care.

By January, she found new purpose.

"Every time I heard about a new campus death, I felt like I had to do something and when the number got to seven I knew I really had to start speaking out," Basulto said.

It started with a petition demanding change and an attempt to raise awareness through conversation.

That petition is now filled with dozens and dozens of similar stories of struggle.

In a statement a university spokesperson said, "We have been reexamining the practices and resources in place for identifying students in need."

The university added that starting this spring, there'll be a number of new measures including a mental health week to raise awareness, on-campus training for students and staff to help identify and support those in need of intervention, and strengthening access to mental health services.

They are changes that started with one student.

"I used to underestimate the power of my voice. And now I know that it only takes reaching out to people," Basulto said.