Every two hours and five minutes a person under the age of 25 commits suicide, according to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS). The association estimates that every year, more than one thousand of these are college students, making suicide their second leading cause of death behind motor vehicle accidents.
At a university such as Cal Poly where academic excellence is a requirement more than just an aspiration, it’s not uncommon for suicide rates to be higher than those of other colleges. In the last decade, prestigious universities such as MIT and Harvard have ranked above the national average for suicides: between seven and 11 students per 100,000.
Cal Poly comparatively stands as one of the better engineering, architecture and agriculture schools in the nation.
In the wake of three suicides by Cal Poly students last year, many students have questioned how someone could become so unhappy that they would consider killing themselves.
In addition to a history of mental instability and general depression, the American Association of Suicidology said the leading causes of suicide in college students can be attributed to financial and social pressures. The feeling of failure and decreased performance in school are also major causes.
“Our friend killed himself our first year at Poly,” Cal Poly alumna Jes Godsey said. “For awhile I was the only person who knew he was feeling this way and I couldn’t tell anybody … I regret that now.”
Godsey said she was extremely close to the victim and knew he wasn’t always in a clear state of mind. She said he had spoken about being depressed and extremely unhappy. In hindsight she wishes she could have done more to help him, she said.
Studies have found more than half of college students have thoughts related to suicide every year.
Dr. Chris Marrer-Howieson, a licensed psychiatrist for the Cal Poly Health Center, said there is a rise in suicide cases around certain times of the year.
“(Suicide) is a very commonly presented issue on our campus,” Marrer-Howieson said. “Typically we find that we see more suicidality during high pressure times like midterms and finals.”
A Cal Poly linguistics junior, who asked to remain anonymous, said the stress students feel in college can be overwhelming.
“I know what it’s like to feel like there’s not much left for you. It gets so stressful trying to make everyone happy, parents, teachers, your peers. Especially during finals. I work to support myself and trying to find time to breathe between studying and working is hard. But counseling really helps and I hope others seek out the support they need, because it doesn’t seem like it but it is all worth it in the end.”
There has been recent attention to the subject from major media outlets as well as from universities that have an above-average suicide rate.
Last November, National Public Radio released a segment about the connection between cutbacks on education and counseling availability. With state funds so low, there isn’t always enough money to sufficiently staff mental health counseling on college campuses.
The University of Texas conducted a survey of 26,000 students across 70 colleges to learn more about suicidal thoughts. Fifteen percent of the people surveyed reported having had seriously considered suicide. More than 5 percent reported having attempted it at least once.
Additionally, more than half of the students who reported they have seriously considered suicide never received professional assistance.
Many researchers agree that another major contributor to the spike in suicides and attempts is that many students who have pre-existing mental disorders are able to get into universities because medication allows them to handle their stress. Unlike past generations, today’s youth can be prescribed medication that eases anxiety and mediates chemical imbalances. While it might be sufficient in high school, adding the stress of being away from home for the first time, higher academic standards and social pressures put these students at a much higher risk for suicidal thoughts or actions.
Organizations around the country have compiled information on how to recognize and help those who may be suicidal.
According to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, the major indicators that someone may be suicidal include uncharacteristic depression or rage, an increase in alcohol or drug use, complaining of sleep problems and recent talk of wanting “an escape” or wanting to die.
Research shows people who are suicidal will often begin to give away their possessions, especially meaningful ones. They might even write a will. People in this situation might begin to act extremely reckless and impulsive.
In some cases, there might also be a small period of extreme happiness following a longer period of depression right before the individual plans on attempting suicide.
The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention suggests a few major strategies to help those who appear to be or have expressed thoughts of being suicidal. One of the biggest ways to help someone who might be suicidal is to express genuine concern for their well-being. Letting them know they are not being overlooked and giving them specific examples of why you are concerned is the first step in helping them.
Offering support and assistance in finding professional help if they haven’t already attempted to seek it out is one of the most suggested ways of helping.
The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention also warns loved ones that the individual should not be left alone at any time, any sort of weapon should be removed from the vicinity and the person should be taken to an emergency room at a psychiatric hospital.
The most important advice for those who are helping someone suicidal: If they are in imminent danger, do not be afraid to call 911.
Though not every person who attempts or commits suicide exhibits warning signs, the American Association of Suicidology and Suicide.org agree that at least 75 percent of those who commit suicide show clear signs of depression and suicidal tendencies beforehand.
Groups like To Write Love on Her Arm and Post Secret aim to help people cope with stress and depression. Both associations have a large support basis. Some groups even offer live support via Twitter and other Web-based mediums.
At Cal Poly, there are a number of groups provided to students that give counseling and support for those who need help coping with the day-to-day.
The Cal Poly Web site has a page dedicated to Health and Counseling Services where students can find tips on how to manages stress, download exercises and breathing techniques that aim to ease anxiety and find phone numbers to call for support.
There is also group counseling that students can participate in through the health center. Other groups on campus assist students in finding a community therapist. The site also offers help not only to students, but parents and faculty as well.
“Don’t be afraid to ask. Often people feel comforted by being asked if there is something wrong. And ask them what you can do to help them,” Marrer-Howieson said. “It allows the person in crisis to dictate what they need.”