The Campus Suicide Crisis
The tragic death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi this week was the latest in a rash of student suicides. Kathleen Kingsbury on why it’s so hard for colleges to prevent their kids from killing themselves.
By all accounts, the death of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi came as shocking news to those who knew the man described as a bright student and a gifted musician. After posting a final missive last Wednesday to his Facebook page, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” Clementi ended his life with a fatal fall.
Rutgers University President Richard McCormick said in a statement of Clementi's death, “Our university community feels the pain of his loss, and I know there is anger and outrage about these events.”
McCormick’s sentiment is one that has become all too familiar in recent years. Last fall, the news of New York University junior Andrew Williamson-Noble’s suicide prompted NYU’s president to write via email, “The impulse for self-harm—particularly among young men and women with so much talent and so much to live for—is incomprehensible to me.”
“Many students who may not have even gone to college five to ten years ago are able to attend because they can control their mental illness with counseling and medication.”
Suicides on college campuses have been declining now for three decades, but a new array of factors unique to today’s college campuses could be exacerbating efforts to combat such deaths. Student suicides still total some 1,100 a year nationwide, making suicide the second leading cause of death among college students after motor-vehicle accidents. The Jed Foundation, a New York City-based college suicide-prevention program, estimates that one in ten college students has considered taking his or her own life. So it would be no surprise if, in the wake of Williamson-Noble’s death, administrators at NYU and across the country are asking themselves: Are we doing enough?
Such fears may also be heightened by the fact that many campuses have seen a recent surge in students seeking mental health services. The 2009 National Survey of Counseling Directors, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, found that 94 percent of directors reported an increase in students with severe psychological conditions, including depression, eating disorders, and drug and alcohol addictions. In addition, 91 percent believe a greater number of students are arriving on campus already taking psychiatric medications.
The increasing use of such drugs means that more students with psychological problems are now able to keep themselves functional enough to make their way onto college campuses. “Many students who may not have even gone to college five to ten years ago are able to attend because they can control their mental illness with counseling and medication,” says Anna Scheyett, a clinical professor of social work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who researches campus mental health crises interventions. Though it should be noted that while this causes additional worries for school administrators, being at school may offer students a certain protection as well, as young adults not attending college are nearly twice as likely to commit suicide than those enrolled.
But schools have long been forced to walk a fine line when it comes to how best to help such students. Some, worried about liability suits, have, in the past, overreacted, sending potentially suicidal students home and even banning them from campus.
On the other hand, moving too quickly can infringe on federal disability laws. New York City’s Hunter College, for instance, agreed in 2006 to pay $65,000 to settle such a case. Plus, the U.S. Department of Education has warned at least a handful of schools that they might be in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which also protects people with mental illness. Add in privacy rights that limit when mental health professionals can notify parents about red flags, and many in academia often feel that their hands are tied beyond simply urging struggling students to visit campus counseling centers.
Overcoming social stigmas around asking for help also remains an uphill battle on most campuses. More than 80 percent of students who commit suicide never sought counseling beforehand, according to a University of Texas study released earlier this year. “Students are incredibly worried about stigmas and being labeled. They want to be normal, to fit in,” Scheyett says. “So they’re very reluctant to seek out help.”
In certain cases, students may increasingly find that there’s no one to turn to. A college campus should have at minimum one therapist for every 1,000 to 1,500 students, according to standards set by the International Association of Counseling Services (ICACS). But many schools don’t even come close to meeting that goal—by one estimate, colleges would need to add an additional 75 percent increase in counseling staff to meet such needs. As NPR reported last month, the waitlists for students seeking help can stretch to a month or more. Recent budget cuts may be at least partially to blame.
"Students in crisis tend to get the greater share of limited resources, resulting in less assistance to other students who are not so acute but who are dealing with more 'traditional' adjustment and developmental disorders," according to an ICACS position paper. "These students may fall through the cracks."
To deal with all of these problems, several schools have launched initiatives that emulate earlier anti-drunk driving campaigns by using peer pressure to push students to seek professional help. “Just like friends don’t let friends drive drunk, friends don’t remain silent when someone is clearly in peril,” says Gary Pavela, a legal scholar at Syracuse University and author of a book on college suicide.
One much-lauded suicide prevention program is that of Cornell University. For years, Cornell suffered the cliché that it was the school with the highest suicide rate, in part because of its proximity to a series of rocky ravines. Since 2002, the school has put in place several suicide-prevention measures modeled on similar efforts undertaken by the U.S. Air Force. Faculty, staff, and resident hall advisors are all now routinely educated about warning signs, and students are introduced to psychiatric wellness programs as part of school orientations. Perhaps as a result, only five Cornell students have taken their lives over the past seven years, compared to 11 in the six years prior to 2002.
Somewhat ironically, another school that’s undertaken a number of preventative measures is NYU. Following a rash of suicides in recent years, the campus took a number of steps to stop such incidents from occurring. A 24-hour hotline is now available to students. Security guards were posted on the rooftops of two high-rises on campus and balcony access was restricted. And at the library, tall Plexiglass walls were installed on floors that faced the building’s atrium.
And still, none of this was enough to prevent Williamson-Noble’s death.
Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.