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Emotional letter written to BYU officials sparks conversation around mental health

PROVO (ABC 4 News) - An emotional letter posted to the door BYU's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office is prompting a discussion about the university's mental health resources after gaining traction on social media.

On Monday, University officials confirmed a female student attempted suicide by jumping off the fourth floor of the Tanner Building.

According to students, an anonymous letter was taped to the doors of the CAPS and Title IX offices later that night.

The letter, addressed to Brigham Young University, said, 'If I killed myself today, would the university mourn my death? Would you ask yourselves why this happened, or simply say this couldn't be helped? Would my death mean anything or would I simply become part of your empty statistic, of the forgotten students who have already taken their lives this year?'

The anonymous writer goes on to say they sought help from a therapist on-campus who is 'wonderful and well-qualified,' but they're only able to see him once a month, because 'he has too many clients to see in one week.'

They also mentioned a friend who was sexually assaulted and 'was told not to go to on-campus counselors because they could not give her the help she needed when she needed it.'

Dr. Gideon Burton, who teaches in the English department at BYU, showed the letter to his class Tuesday morning.

"The reason why I brought it up in class was because I want them to know that their fellow student may be suffering silently and we need to be sensitive to them and talk to them more appropriately," said Dr. Burton.

Matthew Easton, a student of Dr. Burton, said he was pleasantly surprised by the dialogue.

"I wasn’t expecting to see a letter that questioned what BYU was doing to be shared in class. The fact that my professor was even bringing the topic is exciting. It was very needed," said Easton. "I think my class really reacted positively. We wanted to hear what was going on and know how the students were feeling and the professor gave us the space to talk about it."

For Easton, the letter hit home because he said, he's had a similar experience.

"The student said that they had reached out to the counseling service before and wasn’t able to get the help they needed when they needed it," said Easton. "Two years ago, I went to the counseling center and needed to talk to someone. I was having a difficult time and I ended up having to wait more than two months to see a counselor."

He said his situation is not unique and having to wait that long to seek help could be detrimental for a student.

"It’s really discouraging. It’s really lonely. I thought the one place I was told where I could go and get help and I couldn’t find it, it made me feel really alone," said Easton.

Easton posted a picture of the letter on Twitter, which quickly gained traction on social media.

On Wednesday, university officials confirmed the female student who attempted suicide two days before, died from her injuries.

"It breaks your heart. I wish I could've reached out to that student and help her, as well as the student that wrote the letter I posted on Twitter," said Easton. "I wish I could find her and tell her that she’s not alone."

Easton said students at BYU face unique situations because of the religious culture and pressure to be perfect. Dr. Burton agrees, but said the religious environment can be an advantage.

"I actually believe that our Christian values give us a sensitivity, an invitation to open ourselves to have more compassion and empathy," said Burton.

He said the growing need of mental health resources is not necessarily from an increase of students seeking help, but from more students feeling comfortable to reach out.

"I actually think that the problem of students not being able to get into the counseling center is a good sign, because it shows that there’s an increase effort to use the services there," said Dr. Burton.

Todd Hollingshead, spokesperson for Brigham Young University, said CAPS has a policy that allows any student having an urgent crisis to walk-in and meet with a counselor immediately. They also have a counselor available 24/7 reachable by phone.

Since the beginning of the week, Hollingshead said CAPS has met with more than 100 students. Currently, he said there is a proposal to increase the number of counselors on campus. There is also an informal outreach initiative at the Tanner Building for students to provide messages of support to one another.

Dr. Burton said he has seen efforts and initiatives lead by staff and administration to improve mental health resources for students, citing a newly appointed assistant to the president to focus on student success and inclusion as well as a CAPS meet-and-greet event between faculty and LGBTQ students.

He hopes to see more training programs for faculty and staff.

"My greatest suggestion would be to help us to know the best way to handle those sorts of situations. I don’t know that we always know the best way to handle it," said Dr. Burton. "What needs to happen is that it needs to be a culture of caring and a united effort and a multi-pronged effort to reach out to students. I think a lot of it boils down to de-stigmatizing mental health problems."

Easton hopes to see more dialogue and conversation between students and administrators.

"I hope that BYU hears us and they let us know that they’re doing something about it. I hope that, even more importantly, that other students here on campus, who are feeling alone or who need help will reach out," said Easton.

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