‘Like a chain reaction’: UW-River Falls grappling with fourth student death in 2 months

Two people sit at a restaurant
Sabrina Hagstrom and her mom, Tania Riske, pose in 2023 photo at Agave Kitchen in Hudson, Wis. Riske and her parents would frequently visit Hagstrom at River Falls and have lunch together there. Hagstrom would order her favorite dish — keto mac 'n cheese.
Tania Riske

About 5,000 students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls will return to start the spring semester in a little over a week.

But junior Juliana Graff knows the campus is still hurting, especially after the death of Mason Crum. He was a junior studying finance.

“I can’t really shake that feeling that this is going to continue, that there’s still going to be issues in this regard going forward, unless something changes,” said Graff.

Crum was the fourth River Falls student to die within a two-month span last fall. He died on Nov. 26 during an extended Thanksgiving break given to the campus to grieve three other students — sophomore Isabella Chavira, junior Sabrina Hagstrom and freshman Jasmine Petersen — who all died a few weeks prior to Crum.

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River Falls is treating the string of deaths as a suicide cluster.

“From what we know, the suicides were not related to each other but happened independently. However, even though they were not related, when you have a suicide cluster, you can have a contagion effect. Following the advice of experts who deal with suicides on college campuses, we did everything we could to minimize the chance that a contagion could occur,” said Laura King, UWRF Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.

The university’s response has included creating a committee to develop a “postvention” plan to address groups of deaths and holding several events focused on well-being.

Family members of Hagstrom, Petersen and Crum confirmed they died by suicide. MPR News was not able to get in contact with Chavira’s family, but an obituary said she lost her battle to depression.

A GoFundMe screenshot
A GoFundMe fundraiser was set up to support UWRF junior Mason Crum's family in the wake of his death.
Via GoFundMe

“It is worrisome because it is almost like a chain reaction. Because it is once someone sees how the people surrounding them react to these kinds of events, it’s almost — you don’t know who is going to be next. Because it’s obviously a pattern and I’m worried that it’s just going to keep happening,” Graff said.

Graff is still grieving Hagstrom, who died on Oct. 31. They became friends after taking a philosophy class together. With the death of a fourth student, Graff feels more stuck in her grief.

“It’s been hard — it’s suicide. It’s a different kind of grief. So it lingers with you heavier,” she said.

A person paints a stone
UWRF junior Juliana Graff draws flowers on "healing stones" at a student wellbeing event. She was there to remember her classmate and friend Sabrina Hagstrom, who died by suicide on Oct. 31, 2023. The event was held at UWRF's University Center on Nov. 29, 2023.
Nicole Ki | MPR News 2023

Colleges work to address growing mental health crisis among young adults

UWRF officials have been working to address the concerns that students like Graff have. King has been overseeing the university’s response to the student deaths and said the deaths are unprecedented for a campus the size of River Falls.

Shortly after the campus community found out about the first deaths, some students stopped showing up to class. Others asked to be excused because of grief, and some wanted the sense of normalcy with going to class. 

“As news came of additional students passing away I know I heard more from students who maybe didn’t know the students well, but were still impacted personally. Just knowing that it could happen in, you know, their residence hall or at their university or in their program. That was incredibly hard for students, regardless of the depth of relationship they had with the students who passed away,” said King.

From 2009 to 2018, the number of students at UWRF who were diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety more than doubled. That’s according to Keven Syverson, who has worked at UWRF’s Student Health and Counseling Services for over 20 years.

“We’ve seen our anxiety rates go up a lot, our depression rates have gone up. But anxiety is the biggest issue right now,” he said.

As of mid-November, Syverson said there was a two-week wait to see one of the six mental health counselors on staff but as of December there was no wait. He said the university brought in local crisis counselors last month to provide more counseling support after Crum died.

A person holds up a sticker
River Falls student Veronica Klenke holds up a sticker at a student wellbeing event held at UWRF's University Center on Nov. 29, 2023.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

UWRF’s rates of anxiety and depression track with national trends. A survey on mental health called the Healthy Minds study has documented an increase in anxiety and depression since 2013 at 530 colleges and universities in the U.S.

In 2023, about 36 percent of students reported experiencing anxiety and 41 percent reported experiencing depression. That’s nearly double from a decade ago.

Late teens to early 20s is typically a difficult age, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota. It’s a time of transition into adulthood and, for a lot of people going to college, it’s the first time they are leaving home, budgeting expenses and living on their own.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic also had a huge impact on mental health for young adults, and said rates of anxiety, depression and suicide have risen since the pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, you had people who were seniors in high school, who then didn’t have a graduation, and maybe they didn’t actually go off to college or go off and get a job like they would have normally. And that’s also developmentally a time where you become even more close to your peers. All of that kind of blew up, honestly,” she said. 

“They also didn’t have necessarily the tools to deal with the change that was happening. So then they finally get to go off to college, but they lost a year or two, frankly, in their own development of just becoming an adult and creating and developing those skills.”

Statewide data from Minnesota shows young adults are most vulnerable to suicide. The state Department of Health reported 20 to 24 year old Minnesotans had one of the highest suicide rates by age group in 2021, behind those who were 25 to 35.

a graph
Statewide data from Minnesota shows young adults were most vulnerable to suicide in 2021.
Minnesota Department of Health

Mothers of two late students blame mental health system in general, not university

Hagstrom was one of many college students impacted by COVID closures. When she began her first semester as a freshman at River Falls in the fall of 2020, she was just starting to make friends on campus when the pandemic forced her to move back home mid-semester.

Riske believes that had an impact on her daughter’s mental health and college experience.

“It wasn’t that normal sort of launching college experience that you want for your child. And I think the aftermath of COVID were just, friends were less accessible and opportunities to try new things just weren’t there the way that they normally are. I think it played a role.”

Hagstrom had a history of depression at varying intensities, according to her mother. Up until her death, she regularly checked in with a psychiatrist and counselor.

But Riske said she was quick to decline mental health services offered to her at River Falls after she was involuntarily committed. She spent two months at a facility in Madison, Wis., for treatment after calling a crisis line when she was “in a bad place.”

Because of that, Hagstrom wasn’t able to finish out the fall semester of sophomore year. After she got out, she took online classes at UW-Eau Claire in the spring and didn’t return to River Falls until a year later.

“I realized the intent of the system again was to protect her life at all costs. But the lesson it really taught her was, don’t reach out, do not admit to anybody in a position of power or authority that you might have plans to end your life, because they’re gonna take everything away from you,” said Riske.

Mental-health experts say involuntary hospitalization can be a necessary treatment for people at risk of seriously hurting themselves or others.

A girl stands holding a peace sign
Sabrina Hagstrom stands in the driveway of her home in Eau Claire wearing her infamous platform leather boots in the fall of 2022.
Courtesy Tania Riske

Although she had mental health struggles, Riske said Hagstrom enjoyed her time as a River Falls student. Hagstrom’s dream was to pursue sports medicine for horses. And she could be easily spotted on campus because of her orange hair and eight-inch platform boots.

“She loved blazing her own trail. And she would call me sometimes walking between classes and I could hear these buckles of her boots going clink, clink, clink as she was walking. People knew who she was because she was not afraid to be who she was,” said Riske.

Hagstrom also wanted to help others.

A group of students walk with candles
A group of students walk along a path at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls on Nov. 14, 2023, as part of a healing walk in honor of three students who died.
Courtesy University of Wisconsin-River Falls

“She wanted people to not suffer with what she suffered with. She knew what mental illness felt like and she didn’t want other people to feel that.”

Jasmine Petersen’s mother, Natalie Petersen, struggled to get her daughter mental health support after she turned 18. Jasmine died by suicide two months into her first semester as a freshman.

Jasmine struggled with anxiety and depression. She commuted to River Falls from her home in Hudson about 15 minutes away, and her shy personality made it hard to make friends. The pressures of doing well in class were weighing on Jasmine’s dream of becoming a veterinarian, according to Natalie.

About a month before Jasmine died, Natalie said she called campus counseling services expressing concern about her daughter’s mental health and transition into college life. She had hoped they could check in on Jasmine, but said she was told she had to seek the help on her own because she was 18.

It was the same response she had gotten from mental health clinics when she tried to get counseling help for Jasmine before. And after bouncing between six counselors over two years, Jasmine became frustrated with trying to find a psychologist who would take her parents’ insurance. Eventually, she stopped seeking counseling altogether.

“She really got in her head that these people didn’t care about her and about helping her, and that it was just about making money and filling patients,” said Natalie.

It was hard for her to hear, but she couldn’t blame Jasmine for feeling that way. She also couldn’t force her to see someone.

“And I definitely think that’s a problem, that mental health needs should be covered more easily,” she said.

The university can conduct wellness checks on students if there are mental health concerns, including risk for suicide or harming others, according to Kevin Syverson at UWRF’s student counseling services. Students can also sign a release form to allow counseling information to be shared with their parent or guardian.

“But it’s ultimately up to the student when they’re 18 and above,” said Syverson.

A family at a high school graduation
From left to right: Beau, Jasmine, Ashton, Natalie and Aurora Petersen at Jasmine's graduation inside St. Croix Central High School in Hammond, Wis., on May 26, 2023.
Courtesy Natalie Petersen

Jasmine loved playing hockey. While she was attending UWRF, she coached two youth boy’s hockey teams in her town. She started at the age of eight and played for 10 years.

“She always wanted to be a goalie, and so that’s the position she played all her years. Which I always found interesting because she has this shy personality that she doesn’t like the spotlight or attention on her, but was absolutely in love with playing that position where you really are kind of on the spot,” Natalie said.

And like Hagstrom, she also had a passion for horses and a similar career goal of working with animals. 

“She would have made a great veterinarian. She had a way with animals and they seemed to be drawn to her in this mystical, weird way,” Natalie said.

A young woman wears hockey gear
Jasmine Petersen wearing her hockey gear around March 2023 at the United Civic Center hockey rink in Baldwin, Wis.
Courtesy Natalie Petersen

“Though we’ve come a long way in being able to publicly recognize and talk about mental health awareness and suicide, there still seems to be a bit of a stigma and shame associated with it. I think Jasmine felt that shame,” she said.

“You gotta make a mistake or fail once in a while to learn from those and I don’t think that these college kids realize that that’s okay. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to excel and be near perfect.”

Both Riske and Petersen said they felt supported by the university after the deaths of their daughters. They said the university contacted them shortly after the deaths to offer their condolences and support and see if the families were comfortable with sharing funeral arrangements to the rest of campus.

Natalie appreciated the memorial students created in November on the west side of campus in memory of her daughter, Hagstrom, Chavira and Straumanis. She went to go see it in person about a week after Jasmine’s funeral.

“It was beautiful and heartbreaking. I could really feel the support of the campus and loved it. And I was just really sad that so many people were affected by this, and were feeling the pain. And then it wasn’t just Jasmine, that there had been other students in such a short period of time, it’s just really traumatic.”

Riske said she doesn’t think the university is to blame.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with River Falls itself, with a lack of support, or anything, any of those pieces. I think that they got struck by lightning, basically,” she said. “I think it maybe just magnified the fact that all these deaths were at River Falls, and in such a short period of time, just magnified the seriousness of mental health issues in the young-adult population.”

UWRF develops a plan to prevent suicide contagion

In the wake of the first three deaths, UWRF had campus-wide discussions with faculty and students, brought in crisis counselors from local county health departments and held well-being events. They’ve also provided therapy dogs and held an equine therapy event.

“Not everybody is going to come to every event or feel like an event resonates with them, but we want to make sure that there are enough opportunities for people to engage and be supported,” King said.

A person holds a goat
UW-River Falls sophomore Isabella Chavira, originally from Bloomington, holds a goat at a local farm near campus in Sept. 2023. She died on Oct. 3, 2023.
Courtesy Billie Donahue

It was after the second death that university officials started looking at their protocols differently. And there were a number of new challenges they were facing, according to King.

First, their protocol wasn’t designed to handle a potential suicide contagion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines suicide contagion as the “process by which suicide or suicidal behavior influences an increase in the suicidal behaviors of others.”

“Our process is clear enough and manageable enough when you’re working through a single student death. But when you’re working through multiple student deaths, in a short amount of time, we realized that, although doable, we really need to make sure that it’s better coordinated,” said King.

Second, they needed to figure out how they could prevent suicides from happening in the future. Some colleges like North Carolina State University have started to adopt a postvention plan after confronting clusters of suicides. Postvention is a growing area of study that recommends interventions designed to facilitate the grieving process, stabilize the student body and minimize risk of contagion.

That includes the language the University uses when notifying the campus about a student death, all the way to how they memorialize them and help the campus move forward. Safe messaging is critical to preventing contagion, according to Abderholden, NAMI MN director. Research shows sharing details of the manner of a suicide can increase contagion.

“It’s probably pretty hard for students to hear, but you can’t actually share the details,” she said. “It is actually harmful to be sharing the details of how someone took their own life.”

She said another critical element of postvention is meeting face-to-face with impacted students, for example those who lived in the same dorm or shared a class with the student who died.

UWRF has formed a committee to develop their postvention plan, following guidelines set forth by NAMI and Higher Education Mental Health Alliance. The group met for the first time in December and plans to work through the spring semester.

“If this was to occur again — which of course we never want to anticipate it would — but if this were to occur again, we would have been able to have learned from this experience and improved what it is that we do,” King said.

The third challenge has been creating stability on campus and catering to as many students as possible, knowing everyone responds to trauma and grief differently. Although the campus has had to move through such “heartbreaking” time, King said they’ve learned how to move forward as a community.

“The one thing we learned is that we’re stronger together. I think we learn that we’re stronger if we can listen to one another and create space for people to work through grief as they need to,” she said. “Anything that we can do to help other institutions as well, we would like to do because we don’t want any institutions, or students or families to have to go through something like we’ve been through.”

A group of students sit at a table
UWRF freshman Thalia Thao laughs alongside a group of friends as they work on "healing stones" to memorialize students who had recently died. They gathered at a remembrance and reconnecting event held at UWRF's University Center on Nov. 29, 2023.
Nicole Ki | MPR News 2023

How to identify and help someone struggling with mental health

NAMI MN has a list of suicide warning signs to watch, which includes:

  • Talking about: 

    • Wanting to die

    • Great guilt or shame

    • Being a burden to others

  • Feeling: 

    • Empty, hopeless, trapped or having no reason to live

    • Extremely sad, more anxious, agitated or full of rage

    • Unbearable emotional or physical pain

  • Changing behaviors, such as:

    • Making a plan or researching ways to die

    • Withdrawing from friends, saying goodbye, giving away important items or making a will

    • Taking dangerous risks such as driving extremely fast

    • Displaying extreme mood swings

    • Eating or sleeping more or less

    • Using drugs or alcohol more often

If these warning signs apply to you or someone you know, call or text 988 to talk with trained counselors who can help. The 988 suicide and crisis lifeline is available 24/7.