Life Studies & Counsel on Student Suicides

The third apparent suicide at New York University in less than 40 days sent shock waves of sadness and concern across college campuses nationwide. Two students fell to their deaths from the 10th-floor balcony of the library; a third from a sixth-floor window in a nearby building.

Now Newsweek has learned that Columbia, Harvard, and Yale Universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been in discussion since last November with the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to suicide prevention, about developing the first-ever intercollegiate study to determine which kinds of programs make a measurable difference in reducing campus suicides.

Another focus of the pilot study will be determining which programs are most effective at getting kids into counseling: undergrads who commit suicide are usually not the ones who reach out for help. “Once they’re in the mental-health services, we’re not so worried about them,” says Dr. Richard Kadison of Harvard. “It’s getting them in the door.”

Since the death of Elizabeth Shin at MIT in 2000, colleges have taken extra steps to make sure the record number of undergraduates with mental-health problems are getting the care they need.

Liability also is a concern. After Ferrum College freshman Michael Frentzel hanged himself in 2000, his family alleged in a federal law-suit that the Virginia school had ignored signs that he was likely to inflict self-harm. In an undisclosed financial settlement this summer, the school admitted “shared responsibility” for Frentzel’s death—the first time a college ever had done so.

The wider academic community is awaiting the outcome of the Shin family suit against MIT, which alleges the school, overly concerned with Elizabeth’s privacy, wrongly neglected to involve them in her care. Despite the unusual timing of the deaths at NYU, suicide among college students is half as frequent as it is among non-students of the same age.

— Julie Scelfo

This article appeared in the November 3, 2003, issue of Newsweek.
Reprinted with permission.

Counsel on Student Suicide

Every suicide has a great effect on the community around it, whether the student goes to a large state university or little Moravian.

Student services personnel (counselors and dorm staff) as well as friends and teachers of the suicide wonder what signals they missed. Professionals ask if they could have forestalled the death with more time, more information, more insight.

These were the questions discussed in a teleconference last week with Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland. Counselors from Moravian and Lehigh University, as well as schools from across the country, participated. Though concerned with liability in such cases, Pavela also gave useful guidelines to help anyone who suspects that a student may be suicidal.

Pavela used case studies of three suicides whose parents had taken the college to court, believing the institution could and should have done more to help their children. One was Elizabeth Shin. (See story to the right.) One was Sanjay Jain at the University of Iowa in 1994, whose parents were told in 2000 by the Iowa Supreme Court that students were adults, responsible for their own actions, and those who requested no parental notification were entitled to have their wishes respected. In fact, the court held that the university was legally obligated to do so.

The last was Michael Frentzel (see story to the right), whose aunt and guardian sued the college for wrongful death exacerbated by failure to notify his legal guardian of his troubles, his suicide threats, and a previous suicide attempt before he succeeded in killing himself. The verdict is in direct contradiction to Jain v. University of Iowa, and no one knows which case will become the legal precedent. But the judge in this case sharply denied that the college was protected because the dean of student affairs had required Frentzel to sign a statement that he would not hurt himself.

The principle condition that underlies all suicides, Pavela said, is “a distortion in thinking”: the inability to keep things in perspective. In many students, the stress of college courses, problems with roommates, a broken relationship, a poor grade, an unsatisfactory major, or the disappointment of one’s parents can loom large.

These may be the first such crises encountered, and the student’s whole support system of friends, family, minister, teachers, is back in his or her home town. With the mood swings caused by anything from normal hormone imbalances to a variety of mental disorders, some feel the pressures are overwhelming and out of control. They choose death as a way to bypass all their problems.

Pavela and Ron Kline, director of counseling at Moravian, who spoke at the October faculty meeting, agree that those who talk to students should be on the alert for statements or attitudes of:

  • Hopelessness.
  • Lack of control over their future.
  • Correlations with the symptoms of clinical depression, which can include fatigue, listlessness, lack of appetite, inability to sleep, inability to wake up, and sequestering oneself.

Pavela recommended a suicide-prevention program at the University of Illinois as a model, involving cross-functional teams of therapists (mental-health counselors and academic counselors, informed by faculty reports and information supplied by students and friends) whose assessments are monitored and mandated under pain of disciplinary action. Too often, he said, the college simply tries to send the student home, where someone else will be responsible for him or her. “The University of Illinois’ objective is not to remove students,” he said, “but to keep them.”

November 25, 2003

They Got Rhythm:
Photo of Curt Keim and international students on Africa Night.

Coffeehouse Rules:
Librarian Wendy Juniper recommends more lenient food-and-drink policy in library, in effect endorsing café idea.

Fearless Leader:
International student Borko Milosev of Serbia and Montenegro wins ODK leadership award.

Life Studies & Counsel on Student Suicides:
Article from Newsweek and an on-campus conference about suicide prevention among college students.

Home for the Holidays:
Create a gingerbread house
Anniversary Waltz:
Staff and faculty service anniversaries.
Correction for alumni listed in painting exhibit.
Campus calendar.
Achievements of faculty/staff/students.