Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Depression, suicide rising among college students

In the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people from 15 to 24 years old. More than 3,900 young people die by committing suicide every year.

Earlier this month, two students at Cornell University took their own lives by “gorging,” or leaping off a bridge into the vast gorges. The suicides have contributed to the perception that Cornell has a higher-than-average suicide rate. Another student, a freshman, was found at the bottom of Fall Creek Gorge last month, and his death was also ruled a suicide.

Suicides and violence related to mental illness have been on the rise on college campuses across the nation over the years. For instance, in the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, student Seung-Hui Cho opened fire at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people and wounding 25 others. He suffered from severe anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.

“I think that depression and suicide are the largest health issues facing college students at this time,” said Alan Glass, director of Washington University’s Student Health Services and a member of the American College Health Association’s board of directors. “Universities have realized that more and more resources are going to need to be focused on these areas.”

Although the causes of this increase in mental illness among college students are manifold and unclear, reasons likely include academic pressure, transition difficulties and financial stress due to the economic recession.

“Academics can be a major source of stress, especially at a top institution like Wash. U.,” sophomore Sheri Balogun said. “The world has gotten so much more competitive, and there’s a lot of self-inflicted pressure as well as parental pressure to get into a selective university and excel.”

This pressure to succeed affects students at all class levels in the University.

“We [freshmen] come to college not knowing what to expect, and there’s definitely a culture shock—everything is so different, and we don’t have the immediate support of our families like we used to during high school,” freshman Timothy Han said. “Classes are much harder, and the students you’re competing against were probably at the top of their graduating high school classes, so the curve can be harsh.”

Financial strains can also contribute to students’ stress. Since the economic recession, university endowments have decreased significantly, making it more difficult to grant scholarships and financial aid to students in need.

A depressed or suicidal student may exhibit symptoms such as self-harm, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior, alcohol or drug abuse and despondency. One key to helping out such individuals is to help them to realize that their situation is not permanent and that there is hope for change.

Glass said not all universities are doing enough to aid their students in dealing with this debilitating health issue.

“Colleges and universities need to increase services and resources focused on mental health issues,” Glass said. “They also need to provide easier access to mental health services and do more outreach programs on campus. Every student who has depression and anxiety issues does not show up at the counseling center.”

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878