An Urgent Cry to Address Youth Mental Health.
On February 11, 2022, Orli Sheffey died by suicide. Orli, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, was an involved student on our campus: writing for the school newspaper Stud-Life, an aspiring Uncle Joe’s peer mental health counselor, and an advocate for Planned Parenthood and WashU votes. Her death shook our entire campus, as students were shocked that someone who was an advocate for mental health and a presence on this campus was suddenly gone. Though I did not know Orli personally, her death left many of my dearest friends distraught. My heart broke seeing so many people around me hurting.
Orli’s death is not an isolated incident. At neighboring Saint Louis University, undergraduate student Sean North took his own life on April 5 of the same year. He came to SLU on a swimming scholarship. According to a local news source, Orli and Sean were two out of seven student deaths across college campuses in St. Louis in the 2021-2022 school year.
Statistics for suicides on campus are not easily accessible because of privacy. Of the seven deaths reported on WashU and SLU’s campuses, in three cases, no cause of death were shared with the public. Graduate student Anamika Basu in WashU’s McKelvey School of Engineering tragically lost her life on April 3, according to an announcement by WashU’s chancellor, but the school did not give details into the cause of her death. Often, schools will not release statements after the death of students to respect the wishes of the families. While we cannot assume that all of these deaths were suicides, it is important to remember that stigma still remains in our society surrounding death by suicide.
Two months before Orli passed away, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an unprecedented public health advisory that addressed the mental health crisis that is occurring and taking the lives of young individuals. Suicide rates increased 57 percent between 2007 and 2018, and the pandemic has only made things worse. Academic pressure, the increase of technology and social media, and isolation from stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic have wreaked havoc on the mental well-being of younger generations. This is the generation—my generation — that has been at the forefront of mental health advocacy, but we are also the ones suffering the most.
“Too often, young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth — telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough.” Murthy said. “That comes as progress on legitimate and distressing issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence feels too slow.”
Since Orli’s death, steps have been made to advance mental health initiatives. Last July, 988 became the hotline number that would connect people in distress to mental health crisis centers. The federal government did its part to launch and implement the hotline, but state governments are ultimately responsible for the funding of these centers. As of March 2023, Missouri’s in-state response rate was 91 percent, making it one of 15 states plus D.C. to have an answer rate in the 90th percentile. Nineteen states are in the 80th percentile, and 13 states are in the 70th percentile. Arkansas, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida all have a less than 70% in-state answer rate.
A nascent effort is there. Progress has been made, but there is much more left to do to address this crisis. There is an ever-present need that I see in my friends, classmates, and fellow WashU Bears for mental health to be taken seriously. How many more cries for help will be necessary before our cries are answered with change?