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UH temporarily closes academic building as student deaths prompt concerns over mental health care

Houston Chronicle 3/21/2023 Samantha Ketterer, Staff writer

The University of Houston has closed an academic building for the semester after a student apparently died by suicide there on Monday, raising fresh concerns about the mental health crisis among college students as the death is the second one in that building in six weeks.

The deaths have devastated community members who wonder why university officials had not taken earlier steps to secure Agnes Arnold Hall, which has reportedly been the site of multiple suicides over the years, including one on Feb. 15 and another in 2017. In addition to concerns about building safety, questions are being asked about access to mental health services at UH.

“Students are hurting on our campus: It is clear they do not have access to the resources they need," Student Government Association President Joshua Martin said in an Instagram post. "We must have an open discussion where students have a safe space with administration to hear their concerns so that together we can develop a path forward."

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The university notified students of the death on Monday, immediately closing the building Tuesday and pointing students to various campus mental health resources – including UH Counseling and Psychological Services; the Academic Student Assistance Program’s 24/7 access to counseling and individual crisis intervention; and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number, 988.    

UH President Renu Khator also announced that she is setting up a task force to address mental health and suicide prevention at UH, using the help of the school's College of Medicine and city experts.

"I recognize mental health is posing serious challenges on all campuses nationwide, including our own," she tweeted.

"Clearly, we need to go deeper into our system and do more,” Khator wrote in another post. “This is devastating. Let’s pull together and help one another and find long-lasting solutions.”

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A time of mourning

Freshman Gabrielle Palermo said she has struggled to walk past Agnes Arnold since the death on Feb. 15. “It just reeks of death and sorrow,” she said. “And now it’s doubled.”  

Palermo was one of many students on Tuesday who came by Agnes Arnold to stop and reflect. She dropped off pink wildflowers and sat for a while on a nearby bench, looking up.

Others passed by in the normal course of their day, even walking on an outdoor path that traverses through the building. No caution tape remained, although university officials said that they enhanced the presence of security on Tuesday afternoon.

Provost Diane Z. Chase told the university community in an email on Monday that administrators were working to determine the use of Agnes Arnold in the long term. Classes, testing and student organization activities will meanwhile be relocated for the rest of the spring semester.

“We are considering all options," she said. “Once a plan is finalized, it will be shared with our community.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,800 people had signed an online petition calling for the university to close the building and retrofit it to restrict easy outdoor access from higher levels. Freshman Hunter Foster said he feels the building is a problem.

“My initial response walking by, I was like, I already know what it is,” he said. “It is so awful.”

Heather Butina-Sutton, who received her undergraduate degree at UH, said she returned for her Ph.D. program and was surprised to see so many renovations around campus but not at Agnes Arnold. She has attended seminars and taught at the building.

“These tragedies are something that I think the people who work in Agnes Arnold have to carry with them, especially the faculty who have been here a long time,” she said.


Colleges and universities are at a flashpoint in mental health care as more students are reporting suicidal thoughts since the pandemic, said Norma Ngo, director of UH Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS. That possibly stems from difficulties re-emerging to a different world after long periods of social isolation, she said.

In 2022, 41.8 percent of UH students who triaged at the school counseling center stated they had experienced suicidal thoughts, according to the university.

Visits to CAPS dropped during the pandemic, but use is climbing again, although not to pre-pandemic levels, Ngo said. She added that she believes ample resources are available to students for short-term help, but some still don’t know about them or decide not to seek service because of stigma. Many university counseling centers like UH’s aren’t built for long-term treatment and lack specialists who can provide more intensive care, Ngo said.

“A lot of the desire that we’re hearing from our students is to be able to see us more often,” she said.

Butina-Sutton, the Ph.D. candidate, said she had a good first appointment with CAPS several years ago but struggled to get an appointment with the same counselor a second time. She said she imagines that people in similar situations don't always take the time to find care off-campus, especially if they struggled to seek help in the first place. 

“For those first appointments with CAPs, that is a big first step for students,” she said. “It can be difficult to do those assessments because essentially you say, ‘I have a mental health problem.’”

UH is currently collaborating with the JED Foundation in a four-year process to build on mental health, substance use and suicide responses, and officials around the university this week affirmed a commitment to bolstering student mental health. A counselor was made available Tuesday and Wednesday at the Office of Human Resources to speak “informally” with people affected by the student deaths.

“We want them to know there is at least one, if not many people that they can talk to," Ngo said. "If they could find a way to connect with one person ... we can talk with them and help them to have a plan for every minute. We don’t have to plan too far in the future, but literally taking one step at a time.” 

People who are having thoughts of suicide are asked to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988. Counselors can also chat at

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