Tragedy of College Student Suicide

In a five-week period this fall, three New York University (search) students leaped to their deaths in a deadly spree that shocked the urban campus.

The school feared it was confronting a string of suicides — two students jumped from the 10th floor of the university's library on different days while the third leaped from the sixth-floor of a dormitory. So far, only one has been deemed an official suicide, another was later attributed to a hallucinogenic drug trip and the third has yet to be determined, an NYU spokesman said.

Still, the public nature of the deaths sent shockwaves across the campus and raised concerns about the prevalence of suicide, not only at NYU, but on campuses across the nation, and about what can be done to prevent it.

"I feel like the senior administration needs to conduct some rigorous research into what is going on," said one recent PhD recipient at NYU, who declined to give her name. "Looking for commonalities might open up and give answers to why the three suicides occurred."

John Beckman, the vice president of University Relations, cautioned against lumping the deaths together.

"These are individual acts, and each will have their own motivations and their own circumstances," he told the New York Times. "There's a desire for a single rational explanation to derive some single meaning from these deaths, but that may be impossible."

But some psychologists disagree.

"It's a public health issue," said Dr. Alan Schwartz (search), senior staff psychologist at the University of Rochester's counseling center.

"How many years of life are lost when someone dies at that age? It costs the nation 65 or 67 years of productive living," said Schwartz. "Then there's the tragedy of parents outliving a child, siblings losing an age peer, and suicide on a college campus really sends a shiver through the community that can be lasting."

Suicide is believed to be the second leading cause of death among college students, right after accidents. But experts disagree on the rate of suicide among college students, and no organization tracks suicide rates among college students as a separate population.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) and the Department of Justice, the only data available lumps youth from the general population and college campuses together. The CDC is preparing to run a pilot database that would provide more information on suicides to better address the circumstances around why they occur.

"Suicidal ideations are fairly common," said Dr. Sylvia Balderrama (search), director of psychological services at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "We see numerous students at the clinic who either fleetingly, intermittently, or passively have considered suicide, even if they would never consider making a gesture. Some just say, 'I wish I could just go to sleep forever.'"

Experts estimate that for every suicide, there are up to 100 attempts among the young adult population and many more students who experience suicidal ideation.

"There's no question that the stresses of college life can contribute to suicidal tendencies. The sense of perfectionism many students carry, the sense that they have been successful throughout their short lives and might not be as successful in the future, can all lead students to have suicidal thoughts,” Balderrama said.

Some suggest much more needs to be done on college campuses to address suicide.

"I'm not at all satisfied with the resources being applied to this problem on college campuses," said Phillip Satow (search), who lost his youngest son Jed, 20, to suicide in 1998 when he was a student at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Following his son's death, Satow founded the Jed Foundation (search) in 2000 along with his wife, Donna. The foundation aims to reduce youth suicide rates and improve the mental health support available to students nationwide.

One of the ways the foundation achieves that goal is through (search), a Web-based resource where students can anonymously download information about various mental illnesses, ask questions, take risk assessment questionnaires and make appointments with counselors.

The site, designed to interface with a university's online mental health resources, is the first of its kind. So far, more than 100 universities and one million students are registered to use Ulifeline (NYU is registered). But that's only a fraction of the 4,000 universities in the country.
Experts say it's part of the solution because so many students are comfortable getting information from a computer, but it's designed to get students to take the next step and use on-campus counseling services.

Not all students are willing to take that next step.

"It depends on the individual," said Balderrama. "[At Vassar], students are generally good at knowing when they need help. It requires the knowledge that getting help is a strength. But there are always going to be individuals for which seeking help will be seen as shameful behavior."

Satow cites MIT as an example of a university doing a "stellar job" of dealing proactively with campus suicide. Following the April 2000 suicide of one woman who set herself on fire in her dorm room, the university initiated a process whereby all incoming students are asked to fill out a questionnaire asking them about any history of psychological disorders, suicidal thoughts or antidepressant use.

The counseling center then actively follows up with students considered at risk. The university also increased the number of campus counselors from the national average of one per 1000 students, to one per 800 students.

Still, Satow said much more can be done at most schools, particularly in the area of resource allocation. But for that to happen, senior administrators need to get behind the counseling centers.

"I feel that the senior administrators are not adequately aware of the problem which exists," said Satow.

Satow also said universities could be more diligent about limiting student access to the roofs of high buildings, putting bars on windows and keeping toxic chemicals locked away in labs.

But perhaps the most important element, experts agree, is reducing the stigma associated with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Satow said universities could stand to gain a great deal if administrators encouraged incorporating suicide and depression awareness seminars into freshman orientation. Many schools already take this approach with sex education. But removing stigmas can be a slow process, on campus, as in the general population.

In the meantime, New York University has taken its own steps — it has set up barriers on the library's 10th floor to stop others from taking a fatal plunge.