This is a message from Dan Toomey - Annenberg Media’s managing editor for culture and outreach.
It is time for USC - as a campus and student body - to look inward. After weeks of confusion and undeniable tragedy, coming together to find where our faults lie, and how we can be there for each other moving forward, is perhaps more pervasive than ever.
That being said, this is where we find ourselves right now as a campus.
On Tuesday morning, it was reported that a student was found dead in their apartment by DPS officers responding to a welfare check on Monday afternoon. The death of a student would normally be enough for our campus to halt, and perhaps that would be the case if this wasn’t the ninth loss we’ve faced as a university this semester.
There's a lot we don't know, but at least three of these deaths have been confirmed as suicides.
If you haven’t read the most recent Daily Trojan article on these tragedies, I encourage you to do so. Natalie Bettendorf handles this situation with the delicacy and consideration it deserves, something which is demanded of us in journalism now more than ever.
Here at Annenberg Media, you may notice that we haven’t reported on most of these deaths until now. This was deliberate, and it is one of our policies. Studies show that reporting on suicide — especially high-profile ones — often spurs a ripple effect that can prompt other suicides. As the Daily Trojan acknowledged, this is a phenomenon commonly referred to as “suicide contagion.”
That’s why when news about the first student suicide broke this fall, we decided to remain silent — and we continued to do so with the next one. These weren’t easy decisions, but they were made after much open conversation and we figured they were the best ones for the safety of the student body. Earlier this semester, we even had a meeting in our newsroom to discuss why we abide by this and how other student reporters can follow suit.
But clearly, we find ourselves in a unique time as a campus. Nine deaths — some within days of each other — are not and cannot be something we overlook. To do so as a student news outlet is not only irresponsible, but also naive considering that word arguably spreads through social media and word-of-mouth faster than what we can manage with our own platforms.
The causes of these deaths are still being investigated, as well. On Tuesday evening, administrative officials released another email en masse, this time warning students about the dangers of drug use - opioids in particular.
“The effects of alcohol mixed with these drugs can be fatal,” the letter read. “This practice is rising and is linked to overdose and death.”
The letter also acknowledges new resources that USC is investing in to care for students’ mental health. As we reported earlier this semester, the number of mental health counselors on campus increased this year by almost 50%, and a new floor at the Engemann Health Center dedicated to mental health care will be opening up on Monday.
So, considering all this, here’s what we’re doing. Annenberg Media is launching its first-ever newsdesk dedicated to health and wellness. We’re doing a soft-launch right now, and hope by next semester to have two editors assigned to daily coverage about mental health and self-care. Working with them will be student reporters, videographers, photographers and really anyone else who feels passionate about these subjects.
We’re announcing this a bit earlier than anticipated because of how prevalent the issue of mental health has become on campus.
“I think the need for more help is acute right now,” said David Isaacs, a professor of screenwriting and comedy at USC, in a recent interview with Annenberg Media.
“What’s unique about this year is the number of deaths we’ve seen in a very short period of time,” Dr. Sara Van Orman, Associate Vice Provost of Student Affairs, said when the number of deaths was at eight. A day later, that would raise to nine.
This all might seem reactionary given the recent news. Actually, this desk has been months in the making, as its funding will come from the inaugural Kaleigh Finnie Memorial Scholarship for mental health. Two students affiliated with Annenberg Media have been awarded funds in a competitive process to do this important work.
That is why, for the remainder of the semester, we’re encouraging anyone to come to us to talk about mental health at USC by contacting our reporters over social media or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. This will help lead our reporting as the desk begins its work. Similar to a plan recently announced by The Denver Post, these conversations will be off-the-record.
Mental health has been a hot topic with a lot of voices over the past few years — especially regarding the resources available on campus — but we hope that providing students a chance to come to speak and voice their concerns will help steer us in the right direction as reporters to determine what stories we should follow and what questions we should ask.
At its core, this desk is meant to actively stimulate conversations that will help our peers, and publish stories directly from the students’ perspective. This provides us the opportunity to make a meaningful shift in how our campus handles mental health. As a student body, we can’t afford to have another person feel as though their voice doesn’t matter and that they have nowhere to turn. These stories are personal to us — we’ve formed budding relationships with the people we’ve lost. We’ve laughed with them, worked with them in group projects and wondered where our futures may bring us.
Over the next few weeks, there will surely be larger news outlets visiting campus to talk about these deaths — just as has been done with the various scandals we’ve seen over the past few decades. Now, however, our own mental health is coming into play, and as a generation that is uniquely impacted this issue, it is our obligation to tell our own story.
Normalcy is a powerful antidote to stigma, and much of the reason why people suffer from mental health issues is from the fear of admitting it. It’s why, perhaps more than anything, communication is essential to us figuring out how we can solve this problem together — because talking about mental health can become a normal conversation, but only if we’re motivated enough to do it.
Here at Annenberg Media, we believe that starts with your stories. It’s vital that we be there for each other right now as a campus, and this, I believe, provides an avenue to achieve that.
To reach out and get involved with the desk, write to us at email@example.com.
Students dealing with mental health issues can contact the 24/7 phone line (213) 740-9355 or can walk into USC Student Health centers for professional assistance. Students, faculty and staff members concerned about a fellow Trojan can notify Trojans Care 4 Trojans online or by calling (213) 821-4710. Faculty and staff members can reach out to the Center for Work and Family Life at (213) 821-0800.