By Chun Yau (“Joseph”)
Statistically, there is at least one person in your proximity who has seriously thought of committing suicide. It is the second-leading cause of death among college students. Approximately 1,100 American college students end their lives every year.
When a college student ends his life, family and friends are shocked and stricken by unspeakable grief, but what needs to be done is clear. A memorial and funeral would be organized where poems are read and very nice things are said in his memory; his favorite song would be played. The college, on the contrary, is placed in a precarious position. Since campus suicide is highly contagious, it has to tread the fine line between acknowledging the death and not giving too much attention. It is a challenging exercise, and there is no magic formula to deal with all cases. But principles, at least according to mental health experts, help. The cardinal rule is to minimize contagion — give information not details and to swiftly re-establish normal routine while supporting grief. Of course, the ideal is to prevent deaths.
At Cornell University, after a series of well publicized suicides, the school has taken a proactive approach to the problem. In response to a string of six suicides in six months from late 2009 to early 2010, Cornell has installed suicide barriers and guards on bridges and trained staff and faculty to be sensitive to this issue. Ten walk-in counseling offices are strategically located throughout the campus, but the result of these measures has been tentative.
Part of the problem is that high risk students do not seek help. They brood and keep to themselves. So even making help abundant and readily available does not guarantee reduced suicide rates. Recent research has attempted to address this issue. More studies are now focused on the long-term the risk factors, rather than the immediate triggers of suicide. The aim is to identify college students at risk for suicide on the basis of several risk factors measurable at entry. Most recently, a study conducted by a team from John Hopkins found the most important risk factors to be childhood or adolescent exposure to domestic violence, low social support and highly depressive symptoms in the first year of college. Notably, if these results are replicated in another study, it may lead to universal screening for all university students upon entry.
While waiting for these screening tests to be implemented, much can be done now. I am an advocate for the “buddy system,” which is already present in many other large institutions including the Army, and it works by matching students at risk with screened volunteers. The volunteers may be staff or faculty but preferably senior students. Each couple meets at least once a week, jogging, lunching together or simply sitting down for a hot mug of coffee. But in the end, for those who care, stretching out a hand to someone who needs a friend is not a matter of system and structure, or policy, it is human decency.