Graphic by Asyrique Thevendran/TheGazelle

NYUNY deaths bring health and wellness into focus

Within the past month, the NYU community on the Square has dealt with two student deaths. In the early hours of Jan. 27, the first day of the spring ...

Graphic by Asyrique Thevendran/TheGazelle
Within the past month, the NYU community on the Square has dealt with two student deaths. In the early hours of Jan. 27, the first day of the spring semester, freshman Titan Lee-Hai fell from the 15th floor of the Third North dorm. Lee-Hai was last seen reportedly high on drugs, and ensuing articles noted that this was likely the cause of his death. NYU immediately reacted to the death by sending out a NYU New York wide email and, as reported by Washington Square News, offering counseling services for affected students and organizing a vigil for Lee-Hai.
On Feb. 11 another freshman, Rowan Altenburger, was found dead in a hotel, her head covered with a plastic bag. Reports cited the case as a possible suicide. Prescription medication for depression and a sealed letter meant for her mother were found.  On this occasion, there was no email or action in response from NYU regarding Altenburger.
Both in writing and through an op-ed live video, WSN reported on the issue of an unbalanced ratio between patients and counselors at NYUNY’s Wellness Center. According to WSN’s investigation, there seem to be only 34 Counseling and Wellness Service employees on the Square to provide for its nearly 20,000 undergraduates.
Based on her exposure, Angela Ortega, a NYU Abu Dhabi sophomore spending the semester in New York, is satisfied with the services provided by NYUNY. She explained that these are different from those offered at NYUAD.
“[At NYUNY] there are posters everywhere with the health and wellness exchange number,” wrote Ortega to The Gazelle. “We have to go to mandatory meetings with our RAs where the main focus is on how you are coping, whether you feel lonely ... In [Abu Dhabi] I feel like depression is not part of the conversation that much.”
NYUAD sophomore Maddie Moore, who is also studying abroad, agreed that NYUAD’s Health and Wellness Center could make some improvements. For her, the location of NYUAD places some additional obstacles to comprehensive treatment.
“I think that having such a small mental health staff automatically threatens confidentiality. I also think that the counseling program that takes place via Skype is sub-par in comparison to actually meeting face-to-face with a doctor,” noted Moore in writing. “Additionally, the UAE has a long way to go in terms of dialogue, understanding and medication for mental health problems.”
In 2013 the American College Health Association assessed 96,611 undergraduates from 153 universities in the United States, finding that in the last 12 months, 57.0% reported that they felt very lonely and 60.5% noted that they felt very sad. In that same timeframe, 84.3% said that they felt overwhelmed by all [they] had to do.
The Director of Health and Wellness for NYU Global Sites, Dr. Birgit Pols, explained that stress is one of the main issues students face during their college careers as they balance academics, familial duties, extracurriculars and personal relationships.
Ortega asserts that members of the NYUAD community faces a lot of external stress.
“We are supposed to be happy all the time and making the most of the opportunity we are given ... There is a lot of pressure to intern, win competitions, get the best GPA ... This is dangerous because we can’t all be geniuses, and for some people the pressure can be too much.”
For  NYUAD specifically, Dr. Pols, the Director of Health and Wellness for NYU Global Sites, explained that students may also be dealing with extra stressors like being homesick and adapting to a new culture.
Too much stress can influence students’ academic performance. In fact, ACHA reported that 30.7 percent of students said stress affected their grades or coursework in the last 12 months. This was the highest-ranking factor of a selected list provided in the survey, with sleep difficulties and anxiety in the second- and third-highest positions, respectively.
Counseling is available at NYUAD when students need help. Pols distinguished talking to friends from seeing a counselor, which is also different from going to a doctor.
“Unlike friends, counselors are able to be objective; they are not involved in your daily life,” wrote Pols to The Gazelle. “Unlike most doctors, counselors don't give specific advice or tell you what to do. Instead, they serve as skilled listeners who help you to clarify issues, discover your true wishes and feelings and deal effectively with problems.”
However, Moore thinks that, at NYUAD, stigma can become an obstacle to asking for help from the Health and Wellness Center.
“Even within the student body, I have observed a fair amount of misunderstanding and negative perceptions of mental health treatment,” explained Moore. “This sort of ignorance really slows down the healing process for people who are already hesitant to seek help for their issues.”
In the email sent out after Lee-Hai’s death, NYU Vice Chancellor Linda Mills closed by encouraging NYU to act as a community.
“In the days ahead, even as our schedules become busy, let's look out for another especially closely -- let's spare one another an extra moment, listen a little more carefully, be a bit quicker to extend a helping hand [...] Take care of yourselves; take care of one another.”
Additional reporting by Andres Rodriguez. Email him at
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