Doug Bellitto felt his nephew Gage Bellitto was in danger when he didn't respond to his calls and texts in the days leading up to Christmas Eve. They had made plans to meet, but Gage, a Columbia University sophomore battling drug addiction, had fallen silent.
Bellitto showed up at the Carlton Arms dormitory on Manhattan's Upper West Side and asked a front desk security officer, then the facility manager, to check on Gage. Both refused, but was told he could try walking to the Colombia Public Security Bureau – about 10 blocks away – to see if anyone could help. The facility manager, a Columbia employee who lived in the dormitory, warned him that a request from an uncle would likely not be enough to trigger a wellness check, Bellitto said. Frustrated and distraught, he finally gave up and did not go to the public security bureau.
It didn't take until Gage's mother, Kyle Anne Moran, Five days later, a missing person reported that someone from Colombia had been looking for him. On December 27, 2017, Gage was found dead in his dormitory after accidentally overdosing on drugs Fentanyl, A synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more effective than morphine. Bellitto said the coroner concluded that Gage, who was last seen on video on December 21, likely died on December 22.
"That was the day I begged and asked for someone to knock on the door," said Bellitto. "We don't know if he was still alive when I was just a few meters from his door. If someone had done the welfare check, would he still be alive today?"
That question continues to pursue Bellitto and his sister Robin Stettnisch, who for the past three years have tried to get an answer from Columbia about why their efforts to rescue their nephew have been rejected and whether the university's welfare-check protocols have changed since then then.
They hope that telling Gage's story could save another family from experiencing the same heartache, especially given the pressures the Covid pandemic has put on college students. "That's bigger than Columbia," said Szczecin. "We don't want that to happen anywhere else."
The roadblocks that Gage's relatives faced to help him are known to families across the country whose children struggled with drug addiction or mental health problems while studying. It's not always clear who to call when someone is seriously worried about a student. Strict university protocols for examining students may require the involvement of a public safety officer. Some sites cite privacy concerns and only intervene when the situation appears particularly dire.
A growing number of students are grappling with problems that such interventions could trigger. A report from Timely MD, a student telehealth group, notes that the rate of substance abuse among college students has steadily increased in recent years. Mental health problems, often related to drug and alcohol abuse, worsened among college students even before the pandemic report published last year by the Imagine America Foundation. Suicide is the second leading killer among college students today, the National Institute of Mental Health Reports.
It's no wonder colleges routinely make calls from concerned relatives and friends who may be frustrated with the response. Even if someone in college agrees to look after a student, they don't have to give details to parents if the student is 18 years or older. Exceptions would be if the situation is life-threatening or if the student has signed a consent form, said John MacPhee, executive director and CEO of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among teenagers and young adults.
Columbia is one of approximately 350 colleges and universities across the country participating in the foundation's four-year creation program aimed to improve students' mental health and prevent substance abuse and suicide.
In October 2017, two months before Gage's death, Columbia released the foundation's assessment of its mental health programs and guidelines. Under the recommendations: "Provide all community members with the skills and knowledge necessary to identify, reach, and refer students who may have problems."
Officials from Colombia had little to say publicly about Gage's death and did not respond to Bellitto's numerous requests for information about how wellness checks may have changed in recent years.
A spokesman for the university released a statement The Chronicle Describe how dorm staff should now respond in cases like Gage's.
"When a person visits a residential building and raises serious concerns about the health and wellbeing of a resident, the facility manager and other staff are instructed to request a wellness check-up from a public safety officer and help the person contact Public Safety alone ”, it says in the declaration.
This is a very different answer than the one Bellitto received when he asked for help. Not only did the security guard and property manager not call a public safety officer, Bellitto said, but the manager stopped him from contacting by suggesting it was pointless. He didn't give him the public security bureau phone number, just the general location. In any case, "I needed an immediate review from him," Bellitto said, "so as not to go through layers of time-consuming and life-threatening protocols."
Moran, Gage's mother, was reluctant to speak to the media about her son's death, especially since her husband Glenn D. Bellitto succumbed to Covid-19 last April at the age of 62. He was broken by Gage's death and had spent his final years talking about the dangers of opioid addiction.
"Although several factors led to Gage's death, Columbia, an institution he had always dreamed of, was not there for him when he needed it most," she wrote in an email to The Chronicle. "The thought that he was saved, or at least found that day, is hard to live with."
Colombia's statement too The Chronicle acknowledge this pain. "Nothing is more devastating to our community than the loss of a student," it said. "We will always try to improve our measures to prevent these tragic losses from occurring."
Missing red flags
The signs that Gage was in trouble should have been evident in the months leading up to his death, his family says. Gage, who had recently been transferred to Columbia from Bates College, collapsed in the common area of his dorm in October 2017 and had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Doctors told his parents he used a dangerous mix of drugs, Bellitto said.
"You'd think that was a red flag for the university, or at least the dorm manager," he said.
The university had seen at least four student suicides in the year before Gage's death, and those were students Demanding Better support for students with difficulty.
Many sites have early intervention teams trying to identify and help students, said Barry A. Schreier, chair of the communications committee for the Association of University Advisory Board Directors.
"A number of employees come together with puzzle pieces to see if those pieces can be put together into a picture," he said. For example, if they are sufficiently concerned, an assistant knocks on the student's door.
Gage's breakdown and hospitalization two months before his death cleared any doubts that he was in big trouble. "The family knew Gage was struggling with an addiction problem and we were all involved in getting the help he needed," said Bellitto.
Gage agreed to conduct an examination with his uncle at a drug treatment center, where he described all the drugs he dealt with. The advisor told him he was a casual college user who did not need to be admitted. The message Gage took with him was that his drug use wasn't a big deal and people should stop worrying about him, his uncle said.
Gage became increasingly distant from his family when he resisted their efforts to seek treatment. He decided to stay at his dorm during the vacation instead of going home, but agreed to spend Christmas Eve with his uncle, a meeting that would never take place.
On the year-long anniversary of Gage's death, Bellitto and Stettnisch returned to the dormitory. Shared in a recording with the The ChronicleBellitto calmly asked the facility manager why he refused to check on Gage that day a year ago. The manager replied, "It is not my responsibility. Public safety has to be involved."
"Why are we going through this?" he asked later, obviously irritated by the questions.
"Because the family is suffering and we need to understand what happened that day and what may have changed about politics in Columbia," Bellitto replied.
Nothing has changed, replied the manager. Even in retrospect, he said, he wouldn't do anything differently because "I followed my protocol". There was no mention of the updated instructions the university had sent the property managers after Gage's death.
His answer is also a sharp contrast to the message on the Wellness site This is a joint effort by Columbia and the Jed Foundation. It is said that the university “is committed to providing those who interact the most with our students -“ gatekeepers ”like dormitory staff, academic advisors, faculties, and even fellow students – with an essential resource to help students do the most recognize and support, to recognize more quickly could be in need. "
In a letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger, Bellitto wrote that he understood that universities have protocols to protect student privacy. "But in this case, I believe the rigid and non-compassionate application of these procedures that day, especially in the face of a national opioid epidemic, had a devastating and irreversible result," he wrote. Bollinger didn't answer.
He heard from Matthew Patashnick, Assistant Dean for Student and Family Support in Colombia. He wrote to Bellitto that security administrators "have reviewed the incident and taken appropriate action with those involved regarding their conduct that day."
The university, wrote Patashnick, offers "a robust and evolving protocol that offers our students a broad network of support". Unspecified, Patashnick added that the university reviews policies, programs, and resources every year and seeks to improve them. Patashnick didn't answer The Chronicles Please comment.
He referred Gage's uncle to the university's wellbeing Page? ˅, which describes how some employees are now trained to administer life-saving drugs to someone who has overdosed on opioids. Posters have been posted in dormitories addressing barriers to finding care and myths about counseling and mental health services. The Jed Foundation and the National Alliance on Mental Illness publish a guide to help families and friends speak to students who may be having problems and suggest non-threatening ways to encourage someone to open up. It also educates families about the privacy issues they are likely to encounter when their children leave college, and it is recommended that they consider whether a student is comfortable signing a release form that campus authorities use to discuss health information with parents can.
On December 22nd, 2020, the third anniversary of Gage's death, his aunt and uncle returned to the dormitory with flowers in hand and asked if they could have a few minutes for a quick prayer in a corner of the lobby. A guard at the front desk told them if they needed to pray they should go to a church, Bellitto said. Two security guards were called and arrived within minutes. A message Bellitto described as "excruciating irony" was not answered when her nephew took his last breath.