Doug Bellitto had a gut feeling his nephew Gage Bellitto was in danger when he failed to respond to his phone calls and texts in the days leading up to Christmas Eve. They’d made plans to get together, but Gage, a Columbia University sophomore who was battling drug addiction, had gone silent.
Bellitto showed up at the Carlton Arms dormitory on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and pleaded with a front-desk security officer, then the building manager, to check on Gage. Both refused, but he was told he could try walking to Columbia’s public-safety office — about 10 blocks away — to see if someone there could help. The building manager, a Columbia employee who lived in the residence hall, warned him that an inquiry from an uncle probably wouldn’t be enough to trigger a wellness check, Bellitto said. Frustrated and distraught, he eventually gave up and didn’t go to the public-safety office.
It wasn’t until Gage’s mother, Kyle Anne Moran, filed a missing person report five days later that someone from Columbia did check on him. On December 27, 2017, Gage was found dead in his dorm room from an accidental overdose of drugs laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Bellitto said the coroner concluded that Gage, who had last been seen on video December 21, had probably died December 22.
“That was the day I was begging, pleading for someone to knock on the door,” Bellitto said. “We don’t know whether he was still alive when I was mere feet from his door. If someone had done the welfare check, would he be alive today?”
It’s a question that continues to haunt Bellitto and his sister, Robin Stettnisch, who have spent the past three years trying to get an answer from Columbia about why their efforts to save their nephew were rebuffed and whether the university’s protocols on welfare checks have changed since then.
Telling Gage’s story, they hope, could save another family from experiencing the same grief, especially given the stresses the Covid pandemic has placed on college students. “This is larger than Columbia,” Stettnisch said. “We want this to never happen anywhere else.”
The roadblocks Gage’s relatives faced in getting him help are familiar to families around the country whose children struggle with drug addiction or mental-health problems while they’re away at college. It’s not always clear who to call if someone is seriously worried about a student. Strict university protocols for checking on students might require that a public-safety officer gets involved. Some campuses cite privacy concerns and intervene only if the situation appears particularly dire.
A growing number of students are struggling with issues that could trigger such interventions. A report by TimelyMD, a student telehealth group, finds that the rate of substance abuse among college students has risen steadily in recent years. Mental-health problems, which are often related to drug and alcohol abuse, were worsening among college students even before the pandemic heightened feelings of social isolation, loneliness, and depression, according to a report published last year by the Imagine America Foundation. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among college students, the National Institute of Mental Health reports.
It’s no wonder that colleges routinely field calls from worried relatives and friends who may end up frustrated at the response. Even if someone at a college agrees to check on a student, they wouldn’t have to reveal any details to parents if the student is 18 or older. Exceptions would be when the situation is life threatening or 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 teens and young adults.
Columbia is one of about 350 colleges and universities across the country that participate in the foundation’s four-year program aimed at improving student mental health and preventing 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 policies. Among the recommendations: “give all community members the skills and knowledge necessary to identify, reach out to, and refer students who may be struggling.”
Columbia officials have had little to say publicly about Gage’s death and have not responded to Bellitto’s numerous requests for information about how wellness checks may have changed in the intervening years.
A university spokesperson released a statement to The Chronicle describing how employees who staff residence halls are now expected to respond in cases like Gage’s.
“When an individual visits a residential building and expresses serious concerns about the health and well-being of a resident, the building manager and other employees are instructed to request a wellness check by a public-safety officer and also to help the concerned person contact Public Safety on their own,” the statement reads.
That’s a far different response from what Bellitto received when he pleaded for help. Not only did the security guard and live-in building manager not call a public-safety officer, Bellitto said, but the manager discouraged him from reaching out by suggesting it was pointless. He didn’t give him the phone number of the public-safety office, but only the general location. In any case, “I needed an immediate check on him,” Bellitto said, “not to go through layers of time-consuming and life-threatening protocols.”
Moran, Gage’s mother, has been reluctant to speak to the media about her son’s death, especially since her husband, Glenn D. Bellitto, succumbed to Covid-19, at age 62, last April. He was heartbroken by Gage’s death and had spent his last years speaking out about the dangers of opioid addiction.
“Although multiple factors led to Gage’s death, Columbia, an institution where he always dreamed of studying, wasn’t there for him when he needed them most,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “The thought that he may have been saved that day, or at least found, is hard to live with.”
Columbia’s statement to The Chronicle acknowledges that pain. “Nothing is more devastating to our community than the loss of a student,” it reads, adding that “We will always look to improve what we do to prevent these tragic losses from occurring.”
Missing the Red Flags
The signs that Gage was in trouble should have been evident in the months before he died, his family says. Gage, who had recently transferred to Columbia from Bates College, collapsed in October 2017 in the common area of his dorm and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. Doctors told his parents he’d taken a dangerous mix of drugs, Bellitto said.
“One would think that would have been a red flag for the university, or at least the dorm manager,” he said.
The university had experienced at least four student suicides in the year before Gage’s death, and students were demanding better support for struggling students.
Many campuses have early-intervention teams to try to identify and help students, said Barry A. Schreier, chair of the communications committee for the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.
“A number of staff people come together with puzzle pieces to see if those pieces come together to form a picture” that would prompt the team to reach out to the student, he said. If they’re sufficiently worried, a resident assistant, for instance, might knock on the student’s door.
Gage’s collapse and hospitalization two months before his death erased any doubt that he was in deep trouble. “The family was aware that Gage was struggling with an addiction problem, and we were all involved in trying to get the help he needed,” Bellitto said.
Gage agreed to go with his uncle for an evaluation at a drug-treatment center, where he described all of the drugs he was dabbling in. The counselor told him he seemed like a casual college user who didn’t need to be admitted. The message Gage took away was that his drug use was no big deal and people should stop worrying about him, his uncle said.
Gage was becoming more and more distant from his family as he resisted their efforts to get him treatment. He decided to stay in his dorm over the holiday break rather than go home, but agreed to spend Christmas Eve with his uncle, a meeting that would never happen.
On the one-year anniversary of Gage’s death, Bellitto and Stettnisch returned to the dorm. In a recording shared with the The Chronicle, Bellitto calmly asked the building manager why he’d refused to check on Gage a year ago that day. The manager answered, “It’s not my jurisdiction. Public Safety has to get involved.”
“Why are we going through this?” he later asked, clearly irritated by the questions.
“Because the family is suffering and we need to understand what happened that day and maybe what has changed at Columbia in terms of policy,” Bellitto answered.
Nothing had changed, the manager answered. Even in hindsight, he said, he wouldn’t do anything differently, because “I followed my protocol.” There was no mention of the updated instructions the university said it had delivered to housing managers after Gage’s death.
His response is also a sharp contrast from the message on the wellness site that’s a joint effort of Columbia and the Jed Foundation. It says the university “is committed to better equipping those who interact with our students the most — ‘gatekeepers’ such as residence hall staff, academic advisors, faculty, and even fellow students — with a vital means to more quickly recognize and support students who might be in distress.”
In a letter to Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, Bellitto wrote that he understands that universities have protocols to protect student privacy. “But in this case I believe the rigid and uncompassionate application of those procedures on that day, particularly in light of a national opioid epidemic, had a devastating and irreversible outcome,” he wrote. Bollinger did not respond.
He did hear back from Matthew Patashnick, Columbia’s associate dean for student and family support. He wrote Bellitto that security administrators “have reviewed the incident and taken appropriate action with the involved individuals regarding their conduct that day.”
The university, Patashnick wrote, offers “a robust and evolving protocol that casts a broad net of support for our students.” Without providing any details, Patashnick added that the university reviews and tries to improve policies, programs and resources each year. Patashnick did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment.
He referred Gage’s uncle to the university’s wellness site, which describes how some employees are now trained to administer life-saving medication for someone who has overdosed on opioids. Posters have been placed in dorms addressing barriers to seeking care and myths about counseling and psychological services. The Jed Foundation and the National Alliance on Mental Illness publish a guide that helps families and friends talk to students who might be struggling, suggesting nonthreatening ways to encourage someone to open up. It also educates families about the privacy issues they’re likely to run into when their children leave for college, and advises them to consider whether a student is comfortable signing a release form that would allow campus authorities to discuss health information with parents.
On December 22, 2020, on the third anniversary of Gage’s death, his aunt and uncle returned to the dorm again, flowers in hand, and asked if they could have a few minutes for a brief prayer in a corner of the lobby. A front-desk guard told them if they needed to pray, they should go to a church, Bellitto said. Two security guards were called and arrived in minutes, a dispatch Bellitto called “an agonizing irony” given the lack of response when their nephew was taking his last breaths.