Note: This article mentions suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8.
This story originally published online at The Assembly.
It was only two words, a phrase that was probably uttered dozens of times over Ben Salas’s 21 years of life. But on the afternoon of April 26, 2023, it was a text message no parent ever wants to send: the last one.
Tony Salas texted in response to his youngest son’s message that he was going to take his life. Ben, who was finishing his junior year, was a talented athlete on the varsity rifle team, a gifted student, an aspiring Olympian, and a beloved brother, son, boyfriend, and teammate.
He was close with his parents by all accounts, and they did everything they knew to do to raise emotionally healthy children. And still, he was battling himself in secret.
In the 2022-23 academic year, the families of seven North Carolina State University students said goodbye to their children after they took their own lives. Ben Salas was one of them.
It seemed like a normal day, Tony Salas told me. That’s a terrifying truth for many parents who have lost their children to suicide, which is the third leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15 and 24.
Tony Salas lives in Gastonia. The program manager on T-Mobile’s product engineering and development team talked with his son nearly every day, including at about 3:30 on that April afternoon. A friend of Ben’s had died by suicide a few days earlier. “I wanted to make sure he was doing OK,” Salas says. “He said he was fine.”
But less than three hours after assuring his dad he was OK, Ben decided to take his own life.
Five months later, Tony Salas still has no idea why.
“There are the typical signs that you are taught or learn to look for, you know, depression, withdrawal, appetite, mood swings,” he says. “All these sort of red-flag indicators that would normally be cause for concern. You don’t see that. And Ben was proof of that. There were no signs that Ben was struggling mentally. Absolutely zero.”
The seven suicides at NC State last academic year marked an alarming increase; the university averaged three student suicides a year in the previous five years. Of the seven suicides, three were students at the College of Engineering.
Seven other NC State students died last year of other causes, including two who died of a drug overdose.
Already this fall, one NC State student has died on campus; the student’s body was found on Labor Day outside a 12-story dorm. NC State has not identified the student or provided the cause of death.
NC State has more than 35,000 students, and while the university has struggled to address the rising numbers of mental-health-related deaths with additional counselors and other initiatives, even experts are at a loss for answers.
“Our students—and students across the country—face many different stressors,” says Mick Kulikowski, a university spokesman. “Academics may certainly be one, but they also may be navigating relationships, peer pressure, identity, substance abuse, the impacts of the pandemic, and more. As an institution, we try to cast a wide net for support, provide resources and generate awareness of available help on campus and in our broader community.”
But why isn’t this working? Why are young adults still taking their lives at terrifyingly high rates?
Jonathan Abramowitz, director of the clinical psychology training program at UNC-Chapel Hill, says there are many reasons for students to experience anxiety, which is a scientific reaction to perceived threats. But for high-achieving students like Salas, the transition may be more difficult to notice.
“What we see again and again is people are so caught up in this narrative of ‘Well, they were so successful,’” Abramowitz says. “They had such a clear path, they knew where they were going, they had goals, all these different things of these really high-accomplishing individuals who are young and struggling with mental health.”
Success can be a mask for mental health struggles across every age group, but the adolescent and young adult brain is less equipped to handle and process perceived failures.
“They kind of skate through middle school, high school, things might come easy to them. And then when they’re in college, things are a little bit different,” Abramowitz said. “You’re independent. You’re on your own. The bar gets raised a little bit higher. There’s more stakes, it’s your future.”
Failure, unexpected challenges, and disappointment are unavoidable obstacles in life, and yet many young adults are unprepared to address them, especially those who have a record of succeeding. This makes a college campus, like NC State or UNC-CH (which had four student suicides in fall 2021), a breeding ground for undetected mental health challenges.
Ben Salas was successful and surrounded with love—from friends, family, and mentors—and yet he was silently struggling. I was, too.
Driven to succeed
When I was only 16 years old, I decided to graduate from high school early, and applied to two highly selective universities—UNC-CH and Duke University.
The summer before my junior year of high school (my last year), I sat down to write my 600-word personal statement for the Common Application. The prompt read, “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
I didn’t know at 16, or even now at 20, if I’m being honest, that the biggest challenge, setback, or failure you’ve ever known isn’t supposed to be yourself.
Jonathan Abramowitz, director of the clinical psychology training program at UNC-Chapel Hill
“They had such a clear path, they knew where they were going, they had goals, all these different things of these really high accomplishing individuals who are young and struggling with mental health.”
“I don’t live a life where breathing comes easy.” I didn’t mean for it to be scary, like I knew my parents would think it was, or “off-putting” and “concerning,” like my teachers said college admissions officers would think it was. But it was true. I don’t live a life where breathing comes easy, and I never have. I was admitted to college at 16, graduated from high school at the top of my class at 17, and graduated from UNC-CH at 19.
I ran my first political campaign before I could vote, celebrated my 20th birthday as a full-time member of the UNC School of Law staff, and have marked major life accomplishments before I could even legally drink. But I have done it all breathlessly, with three clinical diagnoses weighing on my chest: general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I have strived to be the “first,” “only,” and “best” for as long as I’ve dreamt of anything, but all of my dreams have come down to the same principal factor—if I was those things, I wouldn’t be me. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe I deserved the success I had—I worked hard and tirelessly, I had earned it. But I thought I would feel better once I achieved those things. In reality, the pain and uneasiness that fueled my achievements were the core of who I was. Without it, I was untethered and afraid.
I didn’t have a name for it in fourth grade, when I was so afraid to go to school that I threw up every morning in the car line. Or in middle school, where I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone seeing me eat, so I ate in empty classrooms and told my teacher I had an “elephant sitting on my chest.” Or in high school, when I hyperventilated in the bathroom, dubbed a “Chihuahua” by my teachers and friends.
And frankly, it didn’t matter. I was outrunning my own wellness and inevitable downfall, but I was also outpacing failure, imperfection, and disappointment. I couldn’t reconcile that the same characteristics that gave me the power to be everything I was “supposed” to be (focused, driven, and seemingly perfect) were the same that made me miserable. I couldn’t understand how my strengths were also symptoms of sickness. If they were treated, where would I go? Who would I be?
No one was more surprised than me when I learned that everything I thought I wanted turned out to be the loneliest thing I ever had. I built my entire life on a fragile belief that if I just got the degree, the job, the boyfriend, the title, I would feel better. If I only became one more thing to someone else (an inspiration, a partner, a bragging right, a competitor), I would win the final prize.
Until I had those things and felt empty, deflated, and most unexpectedly, afraid. I reached the finish line, but I reached it alone.
I had attempted to get help while I was an undergraduate at UNC-CH, reaching out to Counseling and Psychological Services for support, but was turned away due to my need for long-term care. The counselors there gave me a referral for an external therapist, but even with different payment options, I couldn’t afford it. It was another year and a half before I was able to get help.
A spokesperson said the university couldn’t comment on a specific case. She said UNC-CH offers students short-term therapy to meet immediate mental health needs; students who need specialized or open-ended care are referred to providers, and funding is available for students who don’t have the resources to cover costs of an outside provider.
“There were no signs that Ben was struggling mentally. Absolutely zero.”Tony Salas
I’ve been the youngest in almost every room I’ve been in, from family gatherings (like Ben Salas, I’m the youngest of five) to high school and college graduation, to classrooms and offices. But I’ve never felt younger than when I finally sat down with my therapy intake form last fall, wiping tears from my face, as I finally admitted my truth out loud: “I want to feel better.”
I don’t live a life where breathing comes easy, but one day I’ll get to. With the help of therapy and prescribed medication, I have slowly been able to clear the fog that my OCD and anxiety cast over my life. I needed help and I am not afraid to admit that, or that it was the choice that saved my life.
Meticulous and focused
Ben Salas grew up in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and Tampa, Florida, where he attended Paul R. Wharton High School and thrived as a competitive shooter. He was a member of the marching band and Navy Junior ROTC and liked to fish.
He didn’t start competitive shooting until he was in high school but quickly excelled. He followed his ambition to NC State, which had one of 22 Division I rifle programs in the NCAA. Salas, who received an athletic scholarship, was a decorated member of the rifle team, holding the top three aggregate scores in program history. He majored in criminology and minored in psychology.
In June 2022, Salas won the junior gold medal in the Air Rifle National Championship at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and qualified to train with Team USA.
“Winning means a lot to me because there are other shooters that I look up to that are the same age as I am,” Salas told The Gaston Gazette in Gastonia, where his family moved in 2020.
He tried various approaches to relax while shooting. “You kind of have to let your body do what it does,” he said. He added, “It’s stressful, but it’s fun.”
His father told the Gazette: “Ben is the type of person that, when he sets his mind on something, he runs at it in full stride. He has put so much time into this sport practicing, frustrated, confused, and, oftentimes, not sure if he was good enough, but he never gave up. He always kept his foot on the gas.”
Shortly after the NC State varsity rifle team was dissolved last spring, Ben Salas developed a plan to continue his sport.
“He called me immediately,” says Lucas Kozeniesky, one of Salas’s coaches and an NC State alum who won a silver medal at the 2020 Olympics. “He goes, ‘What do I do?’”
Salas had already considered transferring to another university with a varsity rifle team with his remaining two years of athletic eligibility. He’d struggled with the lack of support the team had due to changes in staffing and resources, Kozeniesky said. Those changes affected all of the athletes on the NC State team, but especially Salas, who had his sights set on competing at the Olympic level.
He entered the transfer portal and was signed by West Virginia University, the top college rifle program in the country. “We are really excited to add Ben to our team and welcome him to the Mountaineer family,” rifle coach Jon Hammond said in a statement released by WVU Athletics.
At West Virginia, Salas was to join one of his best friends from high school, Matt Sanchez, on the team and in an apartment they’d share. The two signed their lease soon after Salas decided to transfer. “He had a really big opportunity to get on a lot better team and in a better environment, shooting-wise,” Sanchez says.
Salas was excited but also anxious. “He was very, very scared to transfer because he was saying that never in his life would he think that he was gonna be able to go to West Virginia to shoot,” Sanchez says.
The nature of the sport—to be meticulous and focused—is mentally exhausting.
“Most shooters that are good are most likely having some mental trouble,” says Sanchez, who has also struggled with serious emotional health issues.
“Shooting is a sport of perfection. You can’t sacrifice a millimeter of movement, which is always difficult to do. And when you’re trying to shoot for a perfect score, it’s very, very mentally taxing.”
Just days before Salas took his own life, a friend—another young member of the North Carolina shooting community—also died by suicide.
“You’re in your own lane. It’s only offense,” Kozeniesky says. “You can’t do anything to the opponents. And so you’re dealing with your own insecurities for weeks and days at a time. I feel like that can lead to a lot of frustration. And I know that as a culture, we do struggle.”
NC State administrators were alarmed by the rising number of student deaths. They created a Student Mental Health Task Force last fall to research best practices, assess the university’s mental health resources and policies, and collect feedback and ideas. The task force released an 89-page report in February, two months before Ben Salas died.
“We are grappling with how to address the ongoing mental health crisis,” the report said, referring to the nation broadly and universities specifically.
The demand for mental health resources at NC State spiked even before the pandemic. That demand, the isolation caused by the pandemic, and rising day-to-day stressors “have exacerbated our students’ ongoing mental health challenges,” the report said.
“And so you’re dealing with your own insecurities for weeks and days at a time. I feel like that can lead to a lot of frustration. And I know that as a culture, we do struggle.”Lucas Kozeniesky, one of Ben Salas’s coaches
In the last decade, NC State has nearly tripled the number of clinical jobs in its counseling center to about 50. But the task force said adding more clinicians was not enough and urged “a university-wide approach that involves every college, every division or department, and every single student, faculty, staff, and administrator.”
An authoritative national survey of 54,000 undergraduates conducted in spring 2022 showed that 52 percent regularly experienced moderate psychological distress, and 28 percent presented a high suicide screening score.
From 2016 to 2020, there were 878 deaths by suicide in North Carolina of people ages 15–24, according to the task force report. Ten of them were NC State students.
The task force conducted several listening sessions with students and also received written comments expressing a variety of concerns. Many longed for closer bonds at NC State.
“We just need better and easier ways for people to make connections and build community,” one student wrote. Another urged “events so those with a similar major and/or class can meet, connect, and learn from each other.”
Another suggested “communal hang-out areas that are designed for meeting people. Like if you go to this area, you want to talk to random people or clubs.” Another student said, “Half the battle is many of us are not connected.”
In a letter to students when the task force report was released, top administrators from NC State wrote, “Please remember that you have many resources available to help you right now.” Students could schedule appointments at the counseling center or use a new teletherapy service. Those and other resources are found at the Wolfpack Wellness website.
Peter Hans, the president of the UNC system, says they’ve put in place several new mental health initiatives since 2020, including an after-hours telehealth counseling service to provide around-the-clock care at all 17 institutions.
“I am deeply concerned by the trends we see in mental health across society, but especially for young people,” says Hans, who has spoken of his own battles with depression and anxiety. He added that student mental health was a top priority for him and that the universities have spent millions of dollars to expand services.
In the end, it might come down to students having the strength to reach out. Experts and universities will continue to create new ways to address the ongoing college mental health crisis, but no matter what new programs and resources become available, it should be built on a universal truth: You are not alone.
Over the summer, Matt Sanchez moved into the Morgantown, West Virginia, apartment he was supposed to share with Ben Salas. He went to practice with his eight teammates, knowing that the ninth spot was reserved for his best friend.
He will live the rest of his life this way, always leaving a space for his friend who deserved to be there. This is the sad impact of the college mental health crisis—the empty spaces that will never be filled.
“It’s a battle that we will endure forever,” says Tony Salas.
I am one year younger than Ben was, and by the end of next year, I will be older than he ever got the chance to be. He was goofy, loud, focused, fun, and should still be those things today. He was only 21. It makes you ache that 21 is all he will ever get to be.
This story originally published online at The Assembly. Jade Neptune is a 2022 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Tar Heel and on Chapelboro.com. She lives in Wilmington.
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