Carla Cantor

Small Steps

Whose Life is this Anyway?: When College Students Kill Themselves

Colleges are reaching out to prevent campus suicides – and curb litigation.

Posted Feb 22, 2010

Last month, at each of the colleges my children attend, a student committed suicide. The first, in early January, took place at Bard College, a small, liberal arts school in upstate New York. A senior majoring in film studies hung himself in a classroom. My daughter didn’t know him -- apparently, few in the senior class of about 500 did – but the Bard community felt shaken and responsible:The young man had asked that his ashes be scattered on campus. A few weeks later at my son’s school, Rutgers University, a junior Russian major, another male, jumped in front of a New Jersey Transit train near the school's New Brunswick campus.

On large and small campuses, U.S. college students are taking their lives.The number of campus suicides has increased over the past three decades, along with reported rates of clinical depression, although experts point out that this could simply reflect a more honest reporting of an event that’s been too long cloaked in stigma and shame. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 1,350 college students commit suicide each year, making suicide the second leading cause of death among college students after accidents. . 

In early February, I attended a conference, “A Community Approach to Suicide Prevention in Higher Education, which brought about 300 mental health advocates and college professionals to Rutgers University, where I work. Those in attendance agreed:  Universities must confront the problem of student suicides and address mental health and substance abuse problems, rather than wait until it’s too late.  

Read about the link between substance abuse and suicide.  

It’s a refreshing change in attitude. Parents whose college-age children have killed themselves are often startled to discover that campus administrators, faculty and other personnel were well aware that these students were seriously suicidal. Parents and other loved ones had not been given information about prior attempts, serious threats and pleas of friends for intervention – all serious suicide warnings –the university citing privacy laws and age 18 as reasons for not engaging family members.

Then came the case of Elizabeth Shin, whose self-immolation in her dormitory room at MIT in April 2000 prompted a wrongful death lawsuit and raised questions about the school’s handling of mental health services for students. The Shin case altered the notion of culpability on the part of the university.

Psychologist Alan E. Siegel, who spoke at the conference, was brought in to oversee mental health services at MIT following Shin’s death.  Since then, he said, MIT has taken steps to make its mental health program better known among students and easier to access. "We're involved in training everybody that we can think of – faculty, administrative staff, dormitory personnel, and students themselves – in recognizing when a student has difficulties, he said. Students in distress can receive immediate assistance on the phone or, usually, come in the same day for an appointment.

Another speaker, Ronald Chen, the former New Jersey Public Advocate, discussed a report "College Students in Crisis: Preventing Campus Suicides and Protecting Civil Rights” published by this office late last year. Chen, now a vice dean at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, cautioned that campuses that react to suicidal suggestions from students by suspending or dismissing them without providing any means of help also can wind up in legal jeopardy.

Take, for example, the case of  Jordan Nott, a former student at George Washington University who sued the university, alleging university officials “disciplined him, threatened him with criminal prosecution and ultimately ended his college career at the school of his choice” after he sought help for depression at the university’s counseling center.

Although the impulse to get these students off campus is understandable, policies requiring in a blanket involuntary removal of those students, without an appropriate process for assessing their actual dangerousness, run the risk of violating state and federal law, Chen said.  

Not only are courts unwilling to let colleges throw suicidal students out the door, they have gone even further – putting the onus on colleges to actively prevent suicides.This includes alerting parents to a student’s attempted suicide or suicide ideation as early as possible and engaging them in treatment. Though the Shins' $27.65 million wrongful death suit was settled out of court, the Massachusetts court in a prior ruling had suggested that MIT had failed to meet its obligation to Elizabeth Shin through the doctrine of a "special relationship” that exists between the university and the student.

As a mother of college students, I am relieved to hear that universities are taking this special relationship seriously, even if fear of litigation is the prime motivator. My heart breaks for those parents who never were given the chance to help a son or daughter get on a path to treatment before a life was gone.

But lofty ideals and well-meaning protocols are not enough. What has to happen next is for this sensibility to trickle down from the administrators to the front-line players. Resident advisors and student themselves must be made aware of the warning signs of depression and suicidal behavior and be encouraged to bring concerns to the attention of those who are in a position to act quickly. Mechanisms should be set up to enable young people in trouble to talk to other young people who have been there – and back.

Our young adults need to hear these messages from their universities: We care about you and will not forsake you. You will not always feel this way. Excellent treatments are available to mitigate your pain.

Not only will outreach and early intervention reduce the number of campus suicides, it will also equip students vulnerable to depression and other psychiatric problems with coping skills for life. 


About the Author

Carla Cantor is the author of Phantom Illness: Recognizing, Understanding, and Overcoming Hypochondria, as well as an editor at Rutgers University.

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