His name was Cade Gold.
A native of York, Pennsylvania, he arrived at Washington and Lee University in the fall of 2016. A year and a half later, he was dead. He was 20 years old.
“You really don’t understand until you are surrounded by it a little bit more and it’s someone you actually know who’s going through it," said Matt Dodson, a junior. "So it’s sad that that’s what it takes for you to actually wake up, but I don’t know how else people can understand how significant of an issue it is without that.”
By the following morning, President Will Dudley had sent an email to all students, faculty and staff under the subject line, “A Loss for the W&L Community.” In the March 17, 2018, email, he detailed Gold’s student profile—potential major in biochemistry, varsity football, co-founder of the Pre-Health Club—and he invited all to a candlelight vigil on campus the next night. The university’s mental health resources were also available for students, he wrote. Four days later, Sidney Evans, vice president of student affairs, made the offer again.
And then: Silence.
The death of 21-year-old senior Kelsey Durkin in a 2013 drunk driving crash led to several changes at W&L, including the creation of the Promise Committee to raise awareness about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Gold’s suicide, in comparison, did not receive the same treatment. His death reverberates in a single bullet point in the university’s strategic plan. The university has set a fundraising goal of $3.5 million to establish an endowment to pay for health and counseling services.
Kionte Burnette was in his first year at W&L when he attempted suicide in October 2017.
He is suing the university and a mental health counselor for negligence and gross negligence for allegedly failing to provide him with adequate care.
He tried to hang himself in his dorm room, and a short time later, he intentionally threw himself off a gymnasium balcony, according to the lawsuit filed in Rockbridge County Circuit Court in January.
Burnette played on Washington and Lee’s football team until he suffered a foot injury that required surgery, the lawsuit said. The injury worsened the depression and social anxiety he was feeling as a first-year student at W&L, according to the lawsuit.
He met with a dean and told her he was depressed, and she then called in counselor Rallie Snowden to talk with him. According to the lawsuit, Burnette told Snowden that he wanted to kill himself. But the lawsuit said she did not perform a mental-health evaluation or suicide risk assessment, or urge him to go to the emergency room at the local hospital. Instead, the lawsuit said, she told him to go to classes.
Burnette had an anxiety attack in class, the lawsuit said. He did not go to dinner or practice. Nor did he show up at the health center, according to the lawsuit.
“There’s a certain idea about the way a W&L student should be: attractive, put-together competent, socially connected, and so forth. Students who deviate from that often feel sometimes socially neglected, sometimes really outwardly stigmatized of socially rejected.” said Dr. Kirk Luder, a university psychiatrist.
The Perfect W&L Student
On a national level, colleges and universities are experiencing a rise in student utilization of mental health resources.
W&L is a uniquely socially-demanding school —Dr. Kirk Luder
The stigma of we're all really smart, we're all really successful and none of us have any issues. —Anton Livshin
Anton Livshin, a senior who said he has struggled with mental health and substance abuse, has made it his mission to eradicate the stigma attached to seeking counseling. He revived the Active Minds Society, an organization that focuses on openly talking about mental health issues. He also founded a meditation group, the Lotus Society.
Student-run groups also provide support for students. SPEAK started in the late 2000s as an all-female student group to raise awareness of and prevent sexual assault and misconduct on campus. In the 2014-2015 academic year, SPEAK became a co-ed organization by joining with the all-male student group 1-in-4, which also was devoted to bringing attention to sexual assault on college campuses.
The Washingtonian Society was established in 2017 and uses the Washingtonian House on campus as its base of operations. It organizes support groups and provides other services for students with alcohol or other substance abuse problems.
The university also has a Peer Counseling Program, which is a team of student volunteers who help other students who are experiencing emotional problems.
But the Counseling Center is the most heavily utilized of all. In the last few years, the frequency of students seeking counseling increased 33 percent from 2014-15 academic year to 2017-18.
The Counseling Center has a six-person staff to meet the demands of 1,838 undergrads and about 300 law students. Only one counselor is a person of color. Another counselor specializes in LGBTQ+ issues.
Between 2004 and , the volume has increased 1,000 percent. —Dr. Kirk Luder
Senior Rebecca Licata, who withdrew from W&L in winter 2013 to focus on her mental health, said she sought help from the counseling center when she came back to school in fall 2016. She said she was told she’d have to wait two weeks for an appointment.
Rebecca Licata, a senior, reads her poem, "Missing"
In the end, Licata had to wait two weeks before she finally got to see her counselor. Students of minority backgrounds said they have had issues in relating to counselors at the Counseling Center. Out of the six counselors, only one is a person of color and another specializes in LGBTQ+ issues. Students of more diverse backgrounds said they must explain their experiences to their counselors, which eats up time during the much sought-after sessions.
Junior Joëlle Simeu lamented that there are no black counselors. “I know that if that were to be a service that the school would provide, I could see more students of color going to the Counseling Center,” she said.
Chase Isbell, an LGBTQ+ peer counsellor, said he thinks “queer resources” are lacking.
The Counseling Center is hiring another counselor, according to a job posting on the university’s website.
University officials said they are taking steps to help students do better than get by.
Livshin said students are becoming more open to engaging in discussions about mental health.
“I definitely see a change,” he said. “The [campus climate] ... has been shifting towards a more authentic group of people. I can tell just from the freshmen coming to our meetings. I can tell from the first-years just responding to our willingness to talk about mental health. So, I really do see a positive trend on W&L’s campus.”