9 USC Students Have Died This Semester, and the Campus Community Is Searching for Answers

The launch of a new probe indicates tainted opioids may be suspected in one or more of the deaths

At least nine USC student deaths have been reported since August, in one of the deadliest semesters the campus has seen in recent years. The first, an 18-year-old freshman, was reported just before classes officially started, followed by eight additional discoveries, including a 27-year-old student found dead in an off-campus apartment on Monday.

Three of the deaths have been confirmed as suicides, and one was the result of a student being hit by a car while walking near the university. The causes of the other deaths remain unconfirmed. Now, school officials are scrambling to investigate the tragedies and calm the campus community.

“Students are pleading for answers from the university,” student and Daily Trojan newspaper editor Natalie Bettendorf told CBS. “There’s a sense of desperation from within the student body. There have been too many deaths and not enough answers.”

Before this week’s official statements, rumors had widely circulated on campus that all of the deaths were suicides. Suicide is currently one of the leading causes of death for Americans between ages 10 and 24, and the rate of such deaths jumped by 56 percent between 2007 and 2017.

But something else may be at play as well. A new probe launched by police and confirmed by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday suggests that authorities are investigating at least one of the deaths as drug-related. Specifically, sources told the Times, the probe is looking into the possibility that tainted narcotics are circulating among USC students.

As the opioid epidemic continues, thousands of deaths across the country have been linked to tainted or laced drugs. Often, what the buyer thinks to be Percocet, Xanax, or other prescription pills, turns out to contain the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Even small doses of the substance can be lethal. In 2018, the California Department of Public Health attributed 2,311 deaths to opioid overdoses.

Dr. Paul Nestadt, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, told the Times that he sees the uptick in suicides and drug overdoses as potentially being linked to one another. “They’re both kind of going up at the same time, almost twin epidemics,” he said, describing both as “often driven by an ambivalence about life.”

In a typical year, four to 15 students die on the campus, which has a student body of 47,500. Last year, there were six deaths reported during the entire academic year. At nine in under three months, this year appears on track to far exceed normal standards. The university has brought on additional mental health professionals and made counseling and other resources available to the student body.

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