THE BLOG
05/05/2014 04:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2014

In the Wake of Campus Suicides, Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

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"It shouldn't have happened to her." "She had so much to live for; she led such a lucky life."

Nineteen-year-old Madison Holleran's death shocked and frustrated a nation. These comments not only signify a grieving community, but they imply misconceptions about suicide as well. While I'm not faulting those who spoke them, I am highlighting the necessity of education about suicide and mental health.

Madison Holleran's death came two days following my notification about the suicide of a classmate of mine at my graduate program at Penn. It became clear that society was mourning with me. Our desire to make sense of things and know "why" has been the main driving force behind our fascination with Madison Holleran. Confusion arose because she had "so much to live for," which I am not denying. Countless stories of Madison's successes and kindness have been told, and I need not repeat them. But suicide isn't about "having nothing to live for." It is not a failure to recognize how lucky you are.

So what is it about? These misconceptions are where the problem lies.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students. Recent headlines have shed light on the enduring question: Are universities doing enough?

Research finds that 80 percent of college students who completed suicide didn't receive services from campus counseling. (1)

Attention surrounding student suicides has highlighted the flaws in counseling services, forcing colleges and universities to reassess their campus programs. While important, I argue that there are additional places to look for solutions. Providing counseling is not enough when stigma prevents students from going. And if they do go, is it enough? Madison Holleran was reportedly seen by Penn's counseling center.

By delegating all our resources to focus solely on inadequate counseling services, we risk overlooking other areas. Suicide prevention is left to the discretion of each school, as there is no universal policy. A popular policy mandates training faculty about warning signs and behaviors suggestive of suicidality in students. This "gatekeeper" approach trains professors and staff in identifying "at-risk" students as well as resources available. Students aren't involved until when, or if, warning signs are displayed.

Two-thirds of students surveyed who chose to disclose suicidal thoughts did so to a fellow peer. Of undergraduates, almost none confided in a professor. Of graduate students, none. (2) Why are we spending our time and resources educating faculty instead of students?

University policies should require mandatory mental health and suicide education for students. Sure, information is out there, and students can make an appointment with their counseling center (ideally). However, we are leaving students responsible with the difficult decision to seek help and more information, risking stigmatization. The "help is there if you want it" attitude is similar to blaming a neglected child for not taking advantage of child protective services. At least if a child requires help, they are not shamed for needing it.

Debunking myths and spreading facts about mental illness and its contributing factors would help reduce stigma and "victim blaming." Providing students with the same education as "faculty gatekeepers" would increase identification of warning signs, potentially expanding the amount of students receiving help. When an entire student body is educated, disclosing internal struggles to a peer may seem less ominous than risking that a confidant may be ill-equipped to respond.

About 18 percent of undergraduate students have seriously considered attempting suicide in their lifetimes.

Mental health shouldn't only be addressed when it becomes dangerous, just like healthy eating habits shouldn't be endorsed only after a heart attack. Mandating this education would benefit all students regardless of their position on the mental health spectrum. What could be the harm in empowering all students to take an active role in their mental health? Many falsely fear that open dialogue may lead to action. However, discussion may be the most beneficial tool in our arsenal. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act of 2004 has provided suicide prevention grants for 38 schools, but the 2013 Reauthorization hasn't been passed.

As we find ourselves at the brink of a growing trend, it's imperative to explore various methods in reducing suicide in college students. I'm not saying that mandatory suicide education will solve all our problems, or would have saved Madison Holleran or my classmate's life. But it is a resource and an option that they did not have.

Alcohol consumption in universities cost thousands of lives before action was taken. Now, many schools require mandatory alcohol education, and these programs have been effective. How many more unnecessary deaths must we see before alternative actions towards suicide are considered? If we don't push towards further action, we will experience more deaths. And we will continuously be left wondering: Did we do everything we could?

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

References:

1. Kisch, J., Leino, E. V., & Silverman, M. M. (2005). Aspects of suicidal behavior, depression, and treatment in college students: Results from the spring 2000 national college health assessment survey. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(1), 5. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1521/suli.35.1.3.59263

2. Drum, D. J., Brownson, C., Burton Denmark, A., & Smith, S. E. (2009). New data on the nature of suicidal crises in college students: Shifting the paradigm. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40(3), 214. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0014465 >

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