Strengthening the Safety Net
Coping with the suicide of their youngest son, Donna and Phillip
Satow ’63 are leading a nationwide effort to improve mental
health on campuses
By Laura Butchy
In December 1998, 20-year-old Jed Satow, a student at the University
of Arizona, killed himself while on winter break. As are hundreds
of families of college-aged suicide victims each year, the Satows
were shocked and devastated. They also were determined to do something.
While dealing with their sorrow, Phillip Satow ’63 and Donna
Satow ’65 GS developed The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to reducing youth suicide and improving colleges’
mental health capabilities.
“Borne of a personal tragedy of unfathomable proportions,
the Satows have mustered the energy to help college students avoid
self-destructive behaviors and get the help that they may need,”
says Dr. Mort Silverman, senior adviser to The Suicide Prevention
Resource Center in Newton, Mass., and an expert on youth suicide.
“In so doing, they are working tirelessly to ensure that other
parents of college-aged students do not suffer the shock, grief
and loss that they have suffered.”
When they began researching youth suicide, the Satows learned
that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college-aged
students (after auto accidents). Many groups estimate that 15–20
percent of college students are depressed. After Jed’s death,
the Satows visited with the University of Arizona’s president
to discuss Jed’s experience and the problem of suicide on
“It was clear from that discussion that there was no blueprint
for colleges to deal with this,” says Phil Satow. “We
established the foundation to create awareness and seek answers.”
Above, Donna (far left) and Phil Satow '63 (far right) gather for a family photo near Low Library with their children (left to right) Michael '88, Julie '96 and Jed at Julie's graduation from the College. Jed died in 1998 while a student at the University of Arizona.
According to the foundation’s website (www.jedfoundation.org),
about 1,100 suicides occur on campuses each year, and four out of
five young adults who attempt suicide have given clear warnings.
“We want to alert universities to the nature of the problem
and to interventions that work,” Phil Satow says. “We
want to provide a real service.”
The Satows insist, however, that calling what they do a “suicide
prevention program” is not broad enough. Donna Satow prefers
to call it “a mental health improvement program,” noting
that they are trying to counteract precursors to suicide, such as
depression and stress. The Satows emphasize that college communities
need to recognize danger signs and offer support to students long
before suicide is considered an option.
“The answer isn’t just to comb campuses for kids about
to commit suicide,” Phil Satow says. “People of responsibility
need to recognize that it is a problem and know how to deal with
the problem. Counseling centers cannot do the job alone. Cultural
change is required.” He stresses the point: “[What is
needed is] a public health preventative approach commitment at the
upper reaches of the university.”
The Satows’ other children, Michael ’88 and Julie
’96, ’01 SIPA, are foundation board members and help
with ad hoc projects. Michael, an attorney and entrepreneur, lives
in Westchester with his wife and two children. Julie writes for
the New York Sun and lives in Soho. The Satow family works with
people in a variety of fields, including deans, student services,
counselors, psychological services and representatives from all
disciplines to improve the way that mental health is addressed on
A salesman’s son, Phil Satow grew up in Brooklyn and attended
the College on scholarship. “Columbia’s recognition
of my financial need through scholarship grants changed my life
forever,” he says. “I developed a broader awareness
of the world, a desire for intellectual challenge and an appreciation
for the pursuit of excellence.” He met Donna, a General Studies
student, in Butler Library. They married in 1964, while Phil Satow
was serving with the Navy during the Vietnam war. After four years
at sea, he spent his last two years with the Navy stationed in Washington,
D.C. There, he earned an M.A. in economics from Georgetown.
Gerald Sherwin '55 presents Satow with an award recognizing his years of service to the Alumni Association. Satow served as its president from 1998-2000 and was succeeded by sherwin. Satow first became a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors in 1988 and presently serves on the Board of Visitors.
Phil Satow started in the pharmaceutical industry, working for
Pfizer for 15 years, then Carter Wallace and finally, Forest Laboratories.
During his last 15 years at Forest, he was executive v.p. and a
member of the board of directors. Just two days before his scheduled
retirement, Jed died. “One of the reasons I looked forward
to retirement was so I could spend more time with my family,”
Phil Satow says. “It left a gaping hole in my plans for the
A significant part of that future became The Jed Foundation, which
the Satows founded in 2000 in their Soho loft. The foundation is
run by the Satows, a friend of Jed’s who works full-time and
several part-time project managers. By using project managers to
consult on specific projects, the foundation not only uses individuals’
expertise but keeps overhead costs down so that funding goes directly
into the nonprofit’s programs. The Satows hope to employ student
interns in the future.
In January, the foundation leased its first office space on lower
Fifth Avenue. With the support of individual contributors (including
many Columbia alumni), corporations and, recently, private foundation
grants, The Jed Foundation has grown and been able to fund a variety
of important programs.
The first major project was Ulifeline (www.ulifeline.org),
a website for college students that offers access to information
on mental health issues such as depression, stress and the pressures
of college life. Already available to students at more than 240
colleges and universities nationwide, Ulifeline was created by students,
for students, with the supervision of mental health professionals.
“There still is a stigma. Some students don’t want
to be seen going to a counselor,” says Donna Satow, noting
that through Ulifeline, students can access information privately,
at their convenience. The National College Health Risk Behavior
Study found that 11.4 percent of students seriously consider attempting
suicide, and the Satows hope to reach more of these students. Ulifeline
allows students to screen themselves or a friend for warning signs
of emotional problems and provides links to college counseling centers.
Free to the universities, Ulifeline is customized for each school.
Columbia is in the process of connecting to Ulifeline, with Counseling
Services working to customize the website’s responses to student
surveys as appropriate to Columbia.
“We’ve worked with The Jed Foundation in a variety
of ways for several years,” says Richard Eichler, director
of Counseling and Psychological Services. Columbia is among five
universities now participating in a program to develop evidence-based
mental health intervention programs. The universities are free to
develop their own programs in different areas; the foundation sends
independent evaluators to measure the programs’ success.
“The goal is to create data — evidence-based support
that can be communicated to other universities around the country
so that they can develop programs that are right for them,”
Phil Satow says.
New initiatives at Columbia in the past few years have included
town hall-style meetings, where professionals come to campus to
discuss with students mental health topics such as depression and
suicide. In addition, Counseling Services opened residence hall
offices in three dorms, where students can meet with counselors
after-hours in an informal atmosphere.
“Some students prefer [Counseling Services’ offices
in] Lerner, but others are more ambivalent and prefer to see counselors
in dorms,” notes Eichler. He believes the residence hall offices
create a more visible presence and make counselors more accessible
to residence life staff and students who might be concerned about
friends — those who would notice day-to-day behavior of students
but might be reluctant to visit the eighth floor of Lerner. “We
are hoping these offices will make it more convenient to bring in
students who otherwise might not have come in.”
The Jed Foundation also has developed tools for campuses to evaluate
their efforts. According to the Satows, many universities lack awareness
of the serious emotional disorders from which college students suffer.
“Faculty and staff need to recognize the signs,” Phil
Satow says. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary
problem. There are medications, therapy, groups … There’s
The foundation is developing customizable questionnaires to colleges
that they can use to assess their populations. A voluntary freshman
survey allows students to inform the school of past emotional problems,
a landscape questionnaire assesses student body mental pressures
— such as stress and depression — to gauge population
danger and a survey of student attitudes toward mental health issues
provides feedback for the university on its mental health services.
The foundation seeks to raise awareness among parents, as well.
Signs of depression in college students are slightly different from
those found in other age groups, the Satows point out. Excessive
irritability, hopelessness, aggressiveness and impulsivity should
not be overlooked. The Jed Foundation website offers a list of warning
signs to watch for in young people, essential mental health services
that parents should look for in potential colleges and links to
college counseling centers.
website offers statistics, resources, news and contacts for
Another foundation project is a National College Suicide Registry
to document completed and attempted college student suicides. Though
universities are understandably reluctant to publicize suicides
and attempts, the Satows believe that measuring the scope of the
problem will help colleges and independent organizations combat
the problem. The Harvard School of Public Health has been documenting
all violent injuries in 13 states, and The Jed Foundation is sorting
the data to count suicides. The foundation hopes to expand its study
to include more states and develop research that draws reports directly
“The Satows are crusaders,” says Silverman. “They
are very dedicated, concerned, committed, earnest and creative people.
Even though they have a clear vision of who they are and what they
want to accomplish, I have found them open to criticism, critiques,
suggestions and recommendations.”
Phil Satow remains on the Forest Laboratories Board of Directors
and serves on other pharmaceutical boards, as well as consulting
to the industry. He spends about half his time on the foundation.
“Without a doubt, Phil Satow was, and still is, one of the
most dedicated, reliable and giving people to have graduated from
the College in my memory,” says Jerry Sherwin ’55, former
president of the College Alumni Association and first v.p. while
Satow was president from 1998–2000.
Satow has been a member of the Board of the Directors of the Columbia
College Alumni Association since 1988 and is a former director of
the Columbia College Fund. He continues to serve Columbia as a member
of the Board of Visitors and a member of the Kraft Center’s
board. And on the fifth floor of Lerner Hall, student and alumni
functions regularly are hosted in the Jed D. Satow Conference Room.
On March 3, the College honored Phil Satow with a John Jay Award
for Distinguished Professional Achievement. “Phil epitomizes
what one looks for in a John Jay awardee,” Sherwin says.
But the Satows’ greatest triumph still is evolving. “It’s
a positive gift to Jed’s memory that we have the foundation
— and the conference room — named after him,”
Phil Satow says.
“I hope someday our grandchildren will go to college,”
Donna Satow says, “and hear about the way The Jed Foundation
has affected so many lives, and say, ‘That’s my uncle.’”
Laura Butchy is Columbia College Today’s