Number of Boston University Student Deaths 'Staggering'

PHOTO: An unprecedented 11 BU undergraduate and graduate students have died in the last 13 months, said BU spokesman Colin Riley.PlayStan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
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By the time student newspaper editors learned that a student had died in a fire just off the Boston University campus over the weekend, they knew the drill. Over the next few days, they confirmed the student's name with officials, confirmed what had happened with campus police and started talking to the victim's friends to compile an obituary.

The death of Binland Lee, a senior studying marine biology, came less than two weeks after a bomb at the Boston Marathon killed 23-year-old Lu Lingzi, a graduate student studying statistics at the school. In all, an "unprecedented" 11 BU undergraduate and graduate students have died in the past 13 months, said BU spokesman Colin Riley.

"We get them in these little clusters," said Emily Overholt, editor-in-chief of the Daily Free Press, BU's student newspaper. "It's hard, because it's really catching up to people. It's one thing after another."

Overholt, 21, said she never expected to write so many obituaries working for the paper, which covers BU's 33,000 graduate and undergraduate students, most of whom are younger than 25. She called it a "nonstop barrage of bad news for BU."

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The deaths began in April 2012, with the slaying of 24-year-old Kanagala Seshadri Rao, who was found shot to death 500 feet from his apartment in Allston, a neighborhood near campus, according to BUToday, a university-run publication.

Then, a doctoral student committed suicide. Then, three students studying abroad in New Zealand were killed in a van crash. Then an archaeology student died in a fall working on a project in Turkey. Then, a freshman was found unconscious outside a fraternity party in March. He, too, later died.

"It's staggering," said Riley. "There are years – most years – where there isn't a single fatality. That's the way it should be. Young people should be going through their lives reaching old age."

The most common cause of death for people ages 15 to 24 is unintentional injury, followed by homicide and then suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By the time people reach 45, the top cause of death is "malignant neoplasms," or cancer, according to the CDC.

Dr. Catherine Fuchs, a psychiatrist who teaches at Vanderbilt University and directs its psychological and counseling center, said college students often find the death of classmates especially painful and challenging because they're at an age at which they feel invincible. She said it's also not uncommon for students to feel a sense of loss, even if they didn't know any of the students who died.

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"Even on a campus with this many students, all of them are going to know about the Boston Marathon student," Fuchs said. "So this is going to bring all the students to a point of having to think about their lives and the lack of control over events in life. You're not invincible when the randomness of a bomb occurs."

She said the university is faced with addressing the needs of students who have different coping needs and express grief in different ways.

Some students may cope by pretending that nothing happened, or by diving into schoolwork, but others – because they're at an age of impulsivity – might cope by withdrawing or abusing alcohol. Some students may express their grief through emotional behavior while others may try to internalize it and not talk about it, Fuchs said. Those students will likely experience headaches and sleep disturbances.

George Everly, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the degree to which students are affected by death depends on their proximity to it, how well they knew the victim and how strongly connected they are to the school. Signs that they're having trouble adjusting include anger, regression and unusually poor academic performance.

While BU students are resilient, Riley said, faculty has accommodated those who need extra time to complete assignments in these final, emotional final weeks of the semester.

Students organized a vigil for the latest BU community loss last night, where Riley heard a new take on "Boston Strong," the motivational phrase that has been splashed everywhere from buses to T-shirts since the marathon.

He heard someone say "Boston University Strong."