Emily DeSantos-Rademaker and SGA President Ariel Gideon hugged during the student discussion on December 9, 2019. - Photo / Staff writer Mike Reina

A Rowan University student discussion became an outpouring of emotions Monday night as the school community came together in the wake of the tragic past two weeks.

Sophomore music major Ben Deschesne passed away over Thanksgiving break and another student is in critical condition after falling from the Rowan Boulevard parking garage last Thursday afternoon. Monday night’s meeting was the second open forum since last Thursday.

The stormy weather didn’t deter the mass gathering, which filled the ballroom with 400 concerned students and faculty looking to voice their concerns about on-campus mental health resources.

Once again, the administration pushed back on what they believe are misconceptions of the role of the Wellness Center.

“Too often, if the solution is anything other than one-on-one counseling, inside, there is a perception that somehow that student has been lost or forgotten,” Senior Vice President for Medical Initiatives and Affiliated Campuses, Dr. James Newell said during his opening remarks. “We’re going to have to accept that we’re a community grieving together and we’re going to need to work together and with partners beyond our borders to improve that future.”

Students offered words of support to their fellow classmates. Senior Austin Gillis posted large notes of encouragement around the podium, with one note reading, “You are NOT alone.”

Signs of encouragement posted by Senior Austin Gillis during the student center discussion which took place on December 9, 2019. – Photo / Staff writer Kristin Guglietti.

Catherine DeMartino, a Rowan alumna and current employee, urged for greater understanding for those who suffer from mental illness.

“We have to be able to talk about the things that make us feel so alone and scared,” DeMartino said. “Shame will keep us in the dark and keep us running from an imaginary bogeyman….Many [people] are afraid to talk about depression and anxiety for fear of being labelled abnormal. These things are normal and these struggles do not have to define who we are.”

In the face of intense scrutiny in recent weeks, the university found an unlikely defender in Emily DeSantos-Rademaker, a sophomore who was roommates with the late Deschesne.

“I wanted to present an unpopular opinion that some of you might be upset with but I don’t blame the Wellness Center,” she said during an emotional speech. “Do I think there needs to be amendments? Do I think there needs to be change and discussion? Yes, but I think the concept of blame needs to be taken out of the narrative.”

Rebecca D’Ulisse, from Gloucester Township, attended the discussion to raise awareness about how faculty and staff can identify warning signs. It’s an issue that hits close to home following the death of her son Eric, a chemistry major at Westchester University, who passed away in March of 2019. 

“My issues as a parent looking back are different. How can the university identify people that are at risk? A lot of them aren’t going to call anywhere or go anywhere. What can we do that are simple ways to identify people?” D’Ulisse said. “That’s what I hoped to do, bring a different perspective.”

The public forum ended before all students had the opportunity to speak but Wellness Center Director for Student Health Services Scott Woodside, the assistant director Amy Hoch and President Ali Houshmand stayed well past 9:30 p.m. to speak to the remaining students.

“I thought [tonight] was very powerful. I thought it was constructive. I think it was a good start,” Houshmand said. “There are a number of things that we are going to do immediately but ultimately, we need to get support from the state, the community, from nonprofits and agencies that are passionate about these issues….We need to bring everybody to the table and learn from it because these are very complicated issues.”

If you are struggling with any of this information, you can speak with a counselor at the Wellness Center at 856-256-4333. They also have 24/7 counseling at 856-256-4922.

If you are in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), available 24/7.

Further reporting by Kristin Guglietti and Gianna Mehes.

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