COLUMN: Suicide on campus: Out of sight, not out of mind

By Andrew Mason

Someone once said, “Suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me – I quit.'”

Unfortunately, that may only half of the truth. What happens if your school quits on you, regardless of whether you, a student, was successful in the attempt? Putting aside the broader question of whether the word “successful” is a good way to describe suicide, the dilemma facing some college students is troubling.

A 19-year-old student attending Hunter College in New York attempted to overdose on Tylenol in June 2004 before reconsidering and calling an ambulance. Upon her discharge from the hospital, she returned to her dormitory to find that she had been evicted for her actions. She sued for $65,000 in damages and forced the college to change their policy.

While Hunter College did not academically expel the student, it was able to take action under her housing contract. As many psychological studies have shown, the traumatic removal of a person from his or her environment can further exacerbate feelings of despair and sadness. So why did Hunter College pursue this dangerous course of action?

One possibility is legal liability. The potential monetary damages from a wrongful death lawsuit could be devastating, never mind the bad publicity’s impact on enrollment.

In recent years, more colleges (including the University) have reformulated their policies on suicide. These actions come in response to a growing number of cases around the country involving punitive measures taken against students who have expressed their feelings about possible depression, suicidal thoughts and other supposed mental transgressions. It’s about time.

As the second leading cause of death among the college-aged population, the myth that only “crazy” people think about suicide is patently false. In fact, the vast majority of the population reports thinking about committing suicide at one time or another. Thankfully, most do not follow through. But for those that are prevented or fail to complete the act, life suddenly becomes less bearable than before.

In these cases, many people do not seek the help they need for fear of acquiring the scarlet letter ‘S’ that our society brands them with. Mental ailments are so far down on the priority ladder that the suffering and silent among us stay that way rather than being falsely accused of committing some wrong.

The University coincidentally updated their policy the same summer of the Hunter college incident. Now, students who have been the subject of credible reports of behavior associated with suicide, such as threats of action or preoccupation with suicide, are required to attend at least four sessions with a licensed professional.

If the student fails to adhere to this policy, only then will he or she face possible official sanctions. This is a responsible policy that utilizes a recent study showing that mandatory counseling will dramatically decrease the overall suicide rate.

However, it still does not address the bigger problem of those that keep their feelings to themselves. Indeed, the pain experienced by loved ones is felt the most when it is unleashed without warning. Their anguish could be avoided if we take a more sensible societal approach to psychological problems. Instead of pushing the afflicted to the side, not to be seen or heard, we must work harder to embrace them and their feelings.

In truth, most college students face a barrage of stresses. We cope the best we can but every once in a while it seems like more than we can handle. We can take comfort in the knowledge that everyone goes through tough times.

Hunter College was not looking out for the well-being of that student when it kicked her out of her home. Nor was it helpful to have her remove her things under the eye of a security guard. Luckily for us, this University will not treat students the same way. It understands that students do not want pity when we value respect so much more.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you can contact McKinley Mental Health Service during normal business hours at 217-333-2705 or the Crisis Hotline, 24 hours a day, at 217-359-4141.

Andrew can be reached at [email protected]