Suicide: A silent killer?

Posted: February 06, 2014

WHEN LISA Schenke read about the sudden death of University of Pennsylvania freshman Madison Holleran last month, it brought back chilling memories.

Schenke, a North Jersey mother, knew the story all too well: A high-achieving student and varsity athlete ultimately lost a battle with depression. Like Holleran, Schenke's son, Tim, committed suicide - in April 2008, months before he was set to attend Drexel University on an academic scholarship.

"People don't expect depression in young people . . . that are keeping it together, at least for the public," she said. "And that is what Madison was doing, to continue with the school and continuing with the track [team]. Most people would take it that she would come out of it fine because she appeared to have her act together."

Holleran's death was a reminder of the stress many college students face. An Inquirer story last year reported four confirmed suicides involving college students in Philadelphia since the start of the 2012-13 school year.

Official statistics on the topic are hard to come by, though. College administrators and city health officials cite complex gray areas - such as whether to include students who die off-campus, students who are no longer enrolled or deaths that families decline to classify as suicides - that make keeping track of student suicides challenging.

Keeping records of those stats is also not required by federal laws such as the Clery Act, which mandates reporting of campus crime.

"It would certainly be helpful if there were national data on this," said Dr. Victor Schwartz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University's School of Medicine and medical director for the Jed Foundation, the country's leading suicide-prevention organization geared toward college students. "There have been several good studies over the years of college suicide rates, but having ongoing data would help understand trends and the impact of services."

The lack of statistics also raises questions about whether college administrators realize the gravity of the situation on their campuses. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for adults ages 18 to 24 nationally, and some experts say it is the second leading cause of death among college students.

In addition to completed suicides, 15 percent of graduate and 18 percent of undergraduate students have seriously considered attempting suicide, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Opportunity to educate

Following Holleran's death - the third of a Penn undergraduate student since winter break - the university issued a three-paragraph statement expressing its condolences and announcing plans to reach out to those most closely affected.

"Anyone needing assistance in dealing with the grief of her passing should immediately contact [Counseling and Psychological Services]," part of the communique read.

Penn said last week it would extend hours at its counseling center and add staff. The student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, reported that the changes were in response to complaints about long wait times, although a university spokesman said the plan "has been in the works for some time."

Some advocates, like Marisa Giarnella-Porco, insist that by tiptoeing around the issues of suicide and depression, some institutions are not going far enough to address the problem.

"As much as you want to respect people's confidentiality . . . I think kids know what's going on," said Giarnella-Porco, who started the Jordan Matthew Porco Memorial Foundation after her son committed suicide during his freshman year at a small college in Vermont. "I think [a student's suicide] has a big impact on the larger community, and that's an opportunity for the schools to use it as a way to educate and care for students.

"All schools have a responsibility to make sure this is a big part of the curriculum," she continued. "It's all related to student retention, student success. It's not just about graduation rates and are they going to find a job or not."

Giarnella-Porco said some schools are doing an excellent job of raising awareness and trying to identify mental illnesses, but funding is a major challenge.

Shedding the stigma

Some say the stigma related to mental illnesses extends beyond colleges and universities.

"The discussion of suicide and depression is so taboo, especially for college students," said Temple University senior Jennifer Nguyen, president and editor in chief of the website Her Campus Temple. "We're going through lots and lots of changes in our lives and it can be difficult to manage it all, and it's something that not everyone is comfortable to talk about."

Her Campus Temple helped organize a suicide-awareness forum last year after a student no longer enrolled at Temple fatally shot himself on Liacouras Walk in the center of the school's campus.

"It's really important to open up the discussion so people can be open about sharing their emotions and what they're going through," Nguyen said, "and if they're contemplating suicide, it helps a lot to have a support system.

"You meet a lot of people who are going through the same things. The less taboo this topic is, the better it is to assess it and help each other out with it."

Experts and advocates agree there is no single method proven to prevent suicide, but they say more education is the first step.

"[There should be] education that depression is a chemical imbalance," said Schenke, the North Jersey mother. "Young people shouldn't be embarrassed. It's not something you choose, not something you cause."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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