Volume 73, Number 46 | March 17 -23, 2004



N.Y.U. copes with another student suicide

By Elizabeth O’Brien

As New York University grappled with its fourth suicide this school year, a university spokesperson deflected criticism of the school’s official response to the death of a 19-year-old student.

Sophomore Diana Chien jumped to her death from her boyfriend’s Midtown apartment building on March 6. In informing the university community of her death, Marc Wais, vice president for student affairs, wrote, “The young woman was a transfer student from California who began her studies here this semester and lived off campus,” according to Allen Salkin, an adjunct professor of journalism at N.Y.U.

Stressing Chien’s transfer status and off-campus address effectively distanced the university from her death, Salkin said.

“I don’t know if the administration has gotten some advice from professionals saying you have to downplay this and that’s the only way it’ll stop,” Salkin said in a telephone interview.

John Beckman, an N.Y.U. spokesman, said the university was simply stating the facts when it mentioned that Chien was a transfer student who lived off campus.

“It barely deserves a response,” Beckman said of Salkin’s criticism.

Beckman said the university itself first informed its members of Chien’s death, not the news media. Beckman criticized some media coverage of the suicide, particularly the New York Post cover picture of March 10 that showed Chien falling backwards off the building, The Vogue, located at 37th St. and Sixth Ave., which has many young Asian-Americans and Asians and garment industry companies as tenants.

“There was a great deal of upset among faculty and students about the decision to put that photo on the cover,” Beckman said.

Beckman said the university temporarily increased the walk-in hours at its counseling services to help students cope with the recent tragedy. But Salkin argued that the university has not done enough to support students, noting that the school’s health Web pages contain no obvious reference to the Chien’s death.

“There’s been no special response to this,” Salkin said.

Dr. David Fassler, M.D., a trustee of the American Psychiatric Institute and an adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., said that universities must at all times make mental health services easily accessible to students.

“Suicide is a significant problem on college campuses,” Fassler said in a telephone interview.

Fassler said universities must also teach community members to recognize the warning signs of suicide, saying that many young people who kill themselves mention their plans beforehand, often swearing their confidant to secrecy. Also, suicidal students often visit a doctor, sometimes complaining only of vague symptoms. Health providers must also be trained to recognize such warning signs, Fassler said.

Fassler said that pictures like the Post cover shot of Chien plunging to her death could encourage copycat suicides by encouraging people to take similar steps to end their lives.

“We know that sensationalized media coverage can be harmful to people who are already vulnerable,” Fassler said.

In a March 11 editorial, the Washington Square News, the N.Y.U. undergraduate newspaper, called the Post’s decision to run the photo “beneath contempt.”

“While we are in no position to speculate on the motivations behind the deaths, it is obvious that whatever drives students to take their own lives cannot be attributed to the schools they attend, the cities they live in, the friends they keep or anything else so simplistic,” the editorial said.

Three other N.Y.U. undergraduate students have plunged to their deaths since Sept. 12, when Jeff Skolnik, 19, of Evanston, Ill., jumped from the 10th floor of the university’s Bobst Library on Washington Sq. S. On Oct. 10, Stephen Bohler, 18, of Irvine, Calif., jumped from the same library floor. On Oct. 18, Michelle Gluckman, 18, jumped off the sixth floor of a Greenwich Village residential building in which there are N.Y.U. student apartments.


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