Students gathered on the Quad for a candlelight vigil Monday night. 

“We’re drowning.”

JMU senior Amber Fultineer, in a message to The Breeze, described a sentiment that’s been repeated again and again over the past days. After a string of tragedies local to JMU, the university’s students are collectively demanding reform to JMU’s Counseling Center and mental health services and funding. 

Jan. 31, a JMU student died by suicide in the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. The next day, a gunman opened fire on Bridgewater College’s campus, about eight miles from JMU, killing Campus Police Officer John Painter and Campus Security Officer J.J. Jefferson. 

And Monday, Feb. 7, just six days later, witnesses reported seeing an individual jump off the top of the Grace Street Parking Deck to their death. A statement from JMU said the university doesn’t believe the individual was a JMU student, faculty or staff member. JMU’s crime log lists the incident as “suicide - non affiliate of university.”

The collection of events has left many students who spoke to The Breeze shaken, doubtful of support from JMU’s administration. 

“We are unseen and unheard,” Fultineer said. “The stress and expectations placed on us are unbearable and that has been seen within these events recently as well as many others. We need to be treated better.”

JMU’s administration offers a simple response: This is a complicated problem, and they’re trying. 

Hard conversations

For many students, what’s necessary is clear: support and acknowledgement from their university. Many of the students who spoke with The Breeze said that in their eyes, JMU has a habit of pushing mental health aside. Several students referred to the university’s lack of public response and actions surrounding these kinds of events as “sweeping it under the rug.”

Following the suicide Jan. 31, JMU provided no public communication about what had happened in the Arboretum until Feb. 5, four days after the shooting at Bridgewater College.

That Feb. 5 email, from Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller, stated: “This has been a challenging week for all of us,” and that “The tragedies here and at Bridgewater College and Virginia Tech have affected each of us.” 

A gunman at Virginia Tech opened fire at a hookah shop in downtown Blacksburg, killing one individual, Isiah Robinson, and injuring four others.

“They’ll say, like, ‘the tragedy from last night,’ but they always seem to dance around, like, actually saying the word ‘suicide’ or actually talking about it,” JMU senior Zae Moore said. “In a couple weeks, I assume, they’re not going to talk about it anymore.”

The email made no mention of a student death — something several students disagreed with. While the students recognized that family privacy plays a large role in situations involving death or serious injury, the students said they wish JMU would’ve at least directly acknowledged what happened since it was already spreading around campus like wildfire, leaving untruths a large window to develop and become gospel.

“It feels like they try to sweep everything under the rug so they can keep more control of it,” Moore said. “It kind of feels like they just try to push problems aside until it’s too late.” 

The university’s first direct acknowledgement of the death of a JMU student Jan. 31 came in an email from JMU President Jonathan Alger to the student body in which he referred to the JMU community’s processing of “the loss of one of our students from last week and the tragedy at Bridgewater College.” That email arrived in students’ inboxes Feb. 7, seven days after the Jan. 31 suicide. 

JMU’s first campus-wide letter of recognition of the Bridgewater College shooting after an initial safety message the day of the shooting came Feb. 2, the day after the incident. The email from JMU’s senior leadership read, in part:

“We are shocked and saddened by the tragedy that took place on the campus of Bridgewater College, our neighboring institution with whom we work closely and share many friendships. In addition, we have faced our own difficult moments at JMU in the loss of friends and colleagues and maintaining our own health and well-being during such challenging times.”

Mary-Hope Vass, executive director of communications and university spokesperson for JMU, said much of the delay is tied into the fact that investigations into matters such as suicide are often inter-agency processes, meaning Harrisonburg or state police may also be involved. That process, Vass said, is one JMU has to respect and one that can slow things down. 

Also under consideration is what the university should be saying as a best practice from a psychological perspective, especially involving issues such as suicide, Miller said. That guidance from the scholarly community has changed in recent years, Miller said, and as such, the university will change with it. 

“[Research] used to say, ‘You do no memorials, you say nothing, all that,’” Miller said. “Now recently, they’ve come out more to say … ‘You can identify it as a suicide,’ but they don’t go farther than that, so we’re in the midst of those conversations about what is the content that we put out.’”

For Miller, he’s worked in educational communities where he’s seen firsthand evidence of the “contagion effect” with suicide, also known as “copycat suicides,” where individuals will commit suicide after hearing about another individual in their community doing so. The possibility of contagion, Miller said, weighs on him greatly and factors into decisions made about communications from the university. 

“You have to thread that needle,” Miller said. “How do you say enough without saying so much that you cause contagion and a spread?”

In a change from the delayed acknowledgement of the Arboretum suicide, Alger’s email directly recognized the on-campus death of the individual who allegedly jumped from the top of the Grace Street deck. 

The email read, “Today, an individual died on our campus and while it is our understanding at this time that they were not a JMU student, faculty or staff member, this has shaken all of us.”

Several students speculated that a statement may not have come so fast if the event hadn’t happened in a public setting. Moore said “problems are only dealt with — publicly, at least — when it gets really bad.”

JMU student Ashleigh Eades repeated Moore’s sentiment in a message to The Breeze. Just as she’s “heartbroken at what has happened over the past week,” Eades said, “I’m even more sad that JMU isn’t doing anything.” 

“We need to do better, JMU needs to do better,” Eades said in her message. “We can’t lose another life.”

For JMU, the messaging is a delicate balancing act.

The desire for support, several students said, also extends beyond the university’s recognition that something has happened, involving JMU’s teaching faculty. An email sent to the student body Feb. 9 from JMU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Heather Coltman stated, “All of our faculty care deeply for you, and we have asked them show [sic] as much understanding and flexibility as possible to those who may miss classes or be late with assignments this week.”

However, several students who spoke with or sent messages to The Breeze say they’ve struggled with getting their needs met by their professors. 

Fultineer, describing in sum the lack of support she and others say they see from their university’s administration and faculty, wrote the following to The Breeze:

“we cannot be absent if we need a day to rest.. we cannot take time off without consequences.. we are not given the luxury of self care. Our mental health is not a concern and we all feel that in college. I can’t have an absence without getting 15 points off or failing a class, If I’m sick I have to suck it up and push through the pain to avoid the stress and consequence of missing one class. STUDENTS ARE BEING TREATED AS IF WE DO NOT MATTER.. WE ARE HUMANS… WE ARE TIRED…” [sic]

JMU student Francesca Ferrara expressed a similar sentiment, saying that rigid class policies are exacerbating an already serious problem. 

“a lot of students right now feel guilty about not having energy to do school work and attend class,” Ferrara wrote to The Breeze. “mandatory attendance policies and no extensions for assignments is pushing students so hard especially when there’s so much tragedy surrounding our campus … even though many students may not know those who have passed, we are all a part of a community and are grieving a fellow duke.” [sic]

One possible measure Ferrara offered is the reimplementation of mental health days, such as those JMU gave students in the spring 2021 semester in lieu of spring break. Mental health days — or time off for mental health, in general — were mentioned by many students who spoke with or wrote to The Breeze. 

As Fultineer said in her message, “we were not provided the time to mentally deal with this period of life, we did not get a break.” [sic]

Bringing back mental health days for the spring semester, Miller said, wasn’t a concern he’d heard from students until Monday’s candlelight vigil. Miller said one of his first priorities upon arriving at JMU was to reimplement a fall break because he’d consistently heard that students needed time off during fall semesters. But now that the desire for spring mental health days has surfaced, Miller said, “I’ve started looking at the calendar to figure out how to do that.” 

Miller also said the academics department is also actively working to implement training for faculty members on how to handle mental health situations when they’re approached by students, such as programs like Assist and Kognito — both trainings designed to guide faculty through different possible scenarios and how to address them.

However, the change is slow-going. JMU junior Kristen Honaker said she had a professor tell her that, in order to get an excused absence due to a death in the family, she had to prove the death had occurred. In her words, “What if it’s one of my parents? I don’t want to have to prove to you that one of my parents died.”

The students who spoke or wrote to The Breeze commonly asked for the same thing: The “pizza at Taylor Down Under for three hours” offers need to be replaced with concrete resources and solutions that can make real change. 

One Twitter user screenshotted an email from Miller offering a list of “opportunities to come together”: Those included opportunities for “pizza lunch from 12 to 4 p.m. in Taylor Down Under” and to “Play Nintendo Switch in Union 320” or “Connect and color in Rose and Carrier Library lobbies.”

The user wrote in their tweet with the screenshot of Miller’s email, “We need access to comprehensive mental health resources on campus, not free pizza and video games. But thanks.”

A JMU senior who requested anonymity in order to protect her privacy, wrote to The Breeze: 

“I was in the parking deck today. I was also traumatized last semester by a death of someone close to me. I wish JMU wouldn’t try to push these things under the rug, the individuals should be honored with vigils and survivors should be supported. Free cookies and pizza aren’t going to fix anything.”

The senior says she’s working with Miller to establish an organization called H.A.L.O.S., Healing After A Loved One’s Suicide, as an official campus organization that can act as a support group for those impacted by suicide.

Moore said that while she recognizes that universities are somewhat limited in what they can provide to a student body in the thousands, there still has to be more that can be done. 

“There’s only so much a university can do, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like enough,” Moore said. “They bring in a service animal and then have people meet for lunch and then they’re like, ‘OK, now go back to class’ — it doesn’t feel like enough.”

Answering those claims, Miller said JMU is “going to try everything we can to make a difference.” This week, he said, that’s included having additional counselors and staff from the Student Affairs office around campus for students to talk to, as well as the more low-level social events, such as a showing of the Olympics in Taylor Down Under. As he said, “While one person may be like, ‘Really, pizza and the Olympics?’ For someone else, that’s exactly what they needed.”

“If you asked the students who showed up to all those different events, they’ll tell you that made a really big difference for them,” Miller said. “When students stop showing up, then we’ll stop doing that and we’ll do the next thing … If I thought having a petting zoo on campus every day of the week was going to make a difference, I was going to make that happen.”

The overall message — one of frustration in the student body about the support they have or haven’t felt — isn’t lost on JMU’s administration. Miller recognized the degree to which mental illness has become a dominant struggle among JMU’s student body in an interview with The Breeze in January, saying he’s “very, very worried about the mental health of our students.”“I don’t think this is the kind of thing that people are going to say, ‘Well, I said this and no one listened to me, and no one cares,’” Miller said. “You are not going to find anyone on my team — and probably anyone on campus — that’s going to say, ‘Yeah, mental health is not a big deal, I don’t care about it.’”

JMU currently has a Suicide Risk Reduction Task Force, made up of Gloria Mast, interim dean of students; Nicole Crump, Counseling Center staff clinician and suicide risk reduction outreach coordinator; Cover Heishman, Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practice associate director; Renee Jorgensen, engagement fellow; Anthony Matos, chief of police; Leslie Purtlebaugh, assistant vice provost; Dominique Rodriguez, assistant dean of students; Debbie Sturm, graduate psychology professor; Mandy Vitale, engagement fellow.

The list of individuals provided to The Breeze by Tim Miller also includes Kevin Meaney, listed as the director of housing and residence life. Kathleen Campbell is currently serving in an interim role in the role Meaney is listed as holding, according to an email from JMU administration.

JMU is also holding an event called a “Gathering of Hope” on Friday, Feb. 11. A press release from the university says attendees will be able to write messages on streamers while the Marching Royal Dukes perform — one example of what Miller refers to as an “active” measure the university is taking as opposed to “passive” measures such as the offerings of pizza in Taylor Down Under.

Despite the administration’s existing efforts and public statements, students are still pushing for more. Sam, a JMU senior who requested partial anonymity due to a desire for privacy around her mental health, said in a message to The Breeze that just a couple of months ago, she was in the shoes of the individual who died Feb. 7, “sitting at the top of [the] Warsaw deck, looking down.”

“It was one of the worst feelings but I’m glad I decided to not do anything. But, hearing about 2 suicides in the past couple of days here is not the kind of thing people with anxiety and depression need to hear because it’s so triggering for us,” [sic] Sam said. “I broke down about both of these situations and it really hurts not seeing JMU speak up about them” [sic]

For Miller, “We’re trying to do this, too.”

‘Not meant to be a mental health institution’

When Honaker visited the Counseling Center, she’d been sleeping “about 10 hours a week” for about three months — she was, in her words, “really, really manic.” When she told the employees at the Center, she says they told her they weren’t equipped to treat her, offered a few sessions of group counseling and handed her a list of psychiatrists in the nearby area.

Honaker points to a lack of resources for the Counseling Center as a key problem in JMU’s mental health equation — a sentiment shared by many other students at JMU. Sophomore Kyle Lindekis wrote the following in a message to The Breeze:

“I sincerely do not believe that the state of the mental health resources falls on the workers, but instead the fact that there isn’t enough workers. JMU has enough money to build fancy arenas, have food delivery robots and much more, but can’t afford to confirm there is a reasonable student to therapist ratio?” [sic]

The JMU student government association (SGA) has drafted a Bill of Opinion directly addressing the dearth of resources many students said they’ve either seen or been directly impacted by. The bill requests that JMU, “in an effort to work towards a more inclusive campus that supports the emotional wellbeing of the student body, request funding for mental health resources from the Virginia General Assembly as soon as possible and considers adjusting the university budget to allocate greater funding to the Department of Student Affairs.”

In a statement to The Breeze provided by SGA that the organization says was written by Senators Grace Bailey and Rachel York, who lead the creation of a Bill of Opinion, SGA said the following: 

“[This Bill of Opinion] was created to] address the need for greater mental health resources that the university has consistently lacked … We recognize that this issue has been ongoing for several years at this institution, but we feel that the recent tragic events have catalyzed the demand for these resources to be implemented all over campus. As the submitting senators, we want current students and future students to have greater resources than we have had during our time at JMU. 

“Alongside us, the fellow submitting senators and student organizations that signed onto the bill demonstrate that this is a high priority amongst all students on this campus. The bill has also fostered collaboration between the student body, SGA, and administration. We urge you to join our call to action; the fight to support every single student on this campus mentally, physically, emotionally and socially. 

“Mental health is of the utmost importance and our community should come together to support those who are fighting battles we know nothing about. We provide our deepest condolences to all those affected by the tragedies that have occured in the past two weeks. Now is the time to help and support those we hold close; we must stand in unity to support individuals struggling to manage their mental health. 

“We need more resources to ensure that every student can see their own values, know the resources available on campus, reduce the mental health stigma, and learn positive coping mechanisms. You all make a difference in this world, and we want the student body to know that we hear you, see you, and want to support you however we can.”

This isn’t SGA’s first piece of legislation on campus-wide mental health. A similar resolution was written by SGA in 2020, calling for support of action to “increase resources and capacity of mental health resources at James Madison University,” according to the text of the legislation.

Among its justifications for the requested changes in this most recent bill, SGA writes that “greater mental health resources can help prevent mental health crises by helping students to manage their own mental health, and this would lessen the demand on the counseling center, thus enabling it to offer greater counseling resources, rather than performing as a crisis center in function.”

The idea of JMU’s Counseling Center as a “crisis center” of sorts is reflected in the student body outside of JMU as well. Senior Will Dragovich said the following in a message to The Breeze:

“the counseling center being available only (or prioritizing, i feel like their parameters change way too frequently) to students actively in crisis mode is a big problem. this not only discourages students from seeking help, but diminishes their own validity that their feelings are real and deserve professional resources to help them. the reality is professional assistance is for everybody, not just for those who feel theres nowhere else to turn.” [sic]

However, a “crisis center” is — in a disconnect with requests students have been voicing — part of what the Counseling Center is meant to be, Miller told The Breeze. University counseling centers, Miller said, aren’t designed to be long-term care facilities — such as what many students have expressed a desire for. 

With a student body in the thousands, the Center simply doesn’t have the resources to provide every student with a long-term care option, Miller said. Instead, he said, the Counseling Center is meant to be a short-term solution and a place for crisis-situation intervention.

“If you compare this to your medical doctor, you don’t come to JMU thinking, ‘The Health Center is going to become my medical doctor,’” Miller said. “It’s the same concept, that [the Counseling Center] is meant to be for short-term work. We’re not meant to be a mental health institution in that way to provide that level of support.” 

This — and the dearth of staff — also plays into increased offerings of group counseling, Miller said, though he maintains that the Center does “huge amounts” of individual counseling sessions. Additionally, Miller said, “Not everyone, with what they’re presenting, needs individual [counseling].”

Several students, however, have said that the idea of group counseling, having to open up in front of a group of strangers, is a fearful one. JMU student Maya Salzano said repeatedly talking with strangers was something they’d never be OK with when it comes to addressing their mental health.

“I would be incredibly uncomfortable talking about my problems in front of people I don’t know but might see in my classes,” Salzano said. “I don’t really want to share that with people I might just run into at D-Hall, and they’re like, ‘Oh, hey, how’s that issue that you explained?’”

One solution the university is actively pursuing to attempt to address the increased student needs, in tandem with Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) — is a telehealth system that would be run by an outside firm. 

The Counseling Center’s general system of operation, Miller said, is to work short-term with a student, then refer them to full-time counselors, therapists or psychiatrists in the local area. However, Miller said, those local resources have recently been completely booked, making referrals difficult in their own right. A telehealth system students could easily access, Miller said, is one idea the university is actively pursuing as a solution to the needs students are communicating en masse.

Candace Johnson (’21) said — in a message several students communicated to The Breeze — that the system of short rounds of appointments followed by a referral presents its own problems to students seeking mental health care.

“The counselors were great but the bigger issue was how limited sessions were, only being able to have 3-5 sessions felt like I had to force myself to be done dealing with whatever it was I was dealing with,” [sic] Johnson said. “The option of being recommended to another counselor in Harrisonburg didn’t sit right with me. Opening up and being vulnerable can be very exhausting and the thought of having to do that all over again with someone new was not something I wanted to do.” [sic]

Relatedly and at the top of Miller’s list of concerns, he said, is that the Counseling Center is becoming a “mental health emergency room” of sorts, which is “not the ideal model.”

While the university wants the Center to be able to help students in emergency crisis situations, having to consistently respond to a large number of those can put an additional burden on staff also trying to offer what they can in short-term counseling to help the “three-, four-, five-, six-, eight-week folks,” as Miller said.

The SGA Bill of Opinion lists the sharp increase in students seeking help at the Counseling Center that hasn’t been matched by a similar expansion of available resources. The bill states that “the JMU Counseling Center indicates that between 2000-2019 enrollment to the University has increased 48% and counseling center clients have increased 192%, which is an exponential increase in the demand for mental health resources from the center, and the center staff only increased 77% during this period.” Several students echoed that point. Emily Swett (’21), sent the following to The Breeze:

“Obviously there is rarely a single entity to blame in these situations but the reality is our counseling center has been barely functional since I got to JMU in 2017. I went there many times over the 3 years before COVID and they were already understaffed and most students were being shuffled out to expensive off-campus therapists. The people who I met with at the counseling center were always extremely kind and obviously wanted to help but simply did not have the resources to do more.” [sic]

Students brought up those “expensive off-campus therapists” repeatedly. While JMU’s counseling services are free, as Moore said, “I’m lucky enough to have health insurance that can afford [therapy], but I know a lot of students aren’t.”

Fiscal ability, Miller said, is one of the factors JMU looks at when determining whether the Counseling Center can take on a student for a more long-term model of care. Even with that, however, “eventually, we run out of space,” he said.

Despite having insurance, Honaker said, appointments with her psychiatrist cost her more than $100 per appointment. Senior Ariana Colon said that like Honaker, appointments with her psychiatrist cost her well over $400 per month despite her insurance.

Many of the students who spoke or wrote to The Breeze heavily emphasized that, often, the problem lies not with the staffing at the Counseling Center but instead with the lack of resources given to the Center and its staff. 

Swett, in her message to The Breeze, said that while the individuals she met with in the Counseling Center seemed to want to offer her assistance, she got the impression that their hands were tied.

Miller emphasized the same, saying that while he recognizes that the Counseling Center could use more resources, the people there now are attempting to do the best they can to fulfill students’ needs.

“I know people are upset and want to express frustration, but these are people who give of themselves every day and hear some of the worst, most challenging things in our students’ lives,” Miller said.

Miller also — in response to student concern about being seen by graduate students as opposed to fully licensed practitioners: “We’re training future professionals … [who] are well supervised, closely supervised, [and] we feel confident in their ability to do it, or else we would have them doing it.”

One benefit from JMU’s “learning center approach” that Miller explained: Some of those graduate students finish their degrees and end up staying at JMU to work as fully licensed practitioners, helping to fill in the bulwark to support student mental health.

JMU’s Counseling Center staff page currently lists 27 “clinicians.”

As a response to the clamor of requests for increased funding for the Counseling Center, Miller told The Breeze that the university has done just that, pushing “a lot more money” — $1.1 million in total — toward the Counseling Center over the last several years. 

By the end of this coming summer, Miller said, JMU will have added about 10 new staff members to the clinic over the past four years. Four positions are currently listed as open for applications on JMU’s job posting website: one psychiatric support clinician, one senior staff clinician and two residences in the Counseling Center.

Though even with these hiring moves, Miller recognizes that there may never be a staffing level great enough to meet JMU’s needs.

“I don’t know that we can outstaff this,” Miller said. “There’s just such a high need from our students, and they’re facing so much.”

His message to students who have been expressing frustration was simple: “Please don’t attack these people that are just trying to do what they can to help students. They’re doing the best that they can with what they have.”

For JMU’s student body, the clear fix is more money, resources, attention and priority. The people, they say, often aren’t the problem; instead, it’s the lack thereof that they demand JMU address.

A need to talk

Several students and mental health experts communicated a similar message: One of the best things JMU can do is foster and encourage open and honest conversations about mental health, suicide included. Stigmatization, Honaker said, can have a heavy, negative effect on an individual’s mental health.

“It’s not just one of those things that you can be like, ‘Hey, so I’m having these really horrible thoughts’ — most of the time, if you said that to someone, they would freak out on you,” Honaker said. “It’s uncomfortable to even put it out there, so you just keep it to yourself, which makes it fester.”

Lindsey Harvell-Bowman, an associate professor in the communication studies department and the director of the JMU Terror Management Lab, which performs research on suicidality, has seen in studies that talking about suicide openly can help those having suicidal thoughts or ideations to feel less stigmatized. 

“The fact that people are ashamed to take medicine or ashamed to talk about their mental health issues … is in [the fact that] people don’t talk about it,” Harvell-Bowman said. “Yes, mental health is important and taking care of that with licensed professionals, but we also need to talk about it and know that it’s normal.”

Harvell-Bowman’s research involved interviewing freshmen for a period of about two hours about suicide and measuring emotional markers before and after the conversation. One of the things her lab saw is that people, somewhat contrary to popular narratives, were eager to talk. 

When someone would cancel their interview appointment, she said, that slot would get filled up by a different freshman “within a couple of minutes.”

“I think friends not only emphasizing the good things that happen in life, but the bad things, too [are important] because it’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” Harvell-Bowman said. “Just being honest and having open conversations and not being afraid to broach this topic [can help].”

Markita Madden-Puckett, the chair of the Virginia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, emphasized the same point. The organization, Madden-Puckett said, works on “research, education, advocacy, support” around suicide. When she speaks with university students, Madden-Puckett said, talking openly is one of the points she emphasizes the most. 

“Especially right now, with all that everybody has gone through, people are going to appreciate it, just being asked, ‘Are you OK?’”

Several students took the mic at the candlelight vigil to talk about their own personal experience with mental health in front of up to 1,000 of their peers. Honaker said recognition that many students are struggling does a lot to create a sense that she’s not alone.

“[At the candlelight vigil], one of the guys that was there was like, ‘Yeah, I used to cut myself,’” Honaker said. “It’s kind of nice to say it because, like, I’ve been there … And it’s just kind of nice that people are like, ‘Yeah, everybody here is kind of going through something.’”

And now, students call on JMU to work at the university level to foster and provide space for those conversations instead of “sweeping it under the rug,” as Moore said.

“They’ve already lost students, they’re already too late, but they need to do something,” Moore said. “They need to start doing something and continue doing it before we lose more students.”

Miller’s response: JMU’s trying. To the university’s students, JMU needs to be trying harder.

CORRECTION (Feb. 10, 2022, 8:24 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. The copy has been updated to reflect that an initial safety message was shared with JMU students Feb. 1. A line has been removed about licensing at the Counseling Center to improve clarity and prevent misunderstanding. Emily Swett's name was misspelled in an earlier version.

Contact Jake Conley at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.