Thursday, May 24, 2007

Suicides at University of California Causing Alarm

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times ran an article that was sad in parts, but also important in its information on and implications for campus emergency planning and mental health programs. The Times piece documents the recent increase, systemwide, in the number of student suicides at the University of California. The article opens with the tragic vignette on the suicide of Jennifer Tse, at UC Davis, who died after she consumed a horrifically poisionous cocktail of pharmaceuticals, detergents, and bug killers:

As 20-year-old Jennifer Tse was dying in January, she typed a message on her laptop to the coroner's investigators she expected would examine her body. The lonely UC Davis sophomore, depressed and struggling with her studies, had swallowed cold pills, antidepressants, dishwashing liquid and insect poison.

"It's kind of rather sad, it's no way out," she wrote as she described her blurred vision, shaking muscles and a sense that her head was detached from her body. "Hopefully my IQ will stay at the same level. If I end up dead, then oh well."

For five days, no one seemed to notice her absence until her roommate realized something was amiss, used a screwdriver to open the locked door to Tse's room and found her body on the floor.

Tse's death is another grim statistic in what university administrators say is an escalating mental health crisis on campuses across the nation.

She was one of at least nine students who committed suicide at UC Davis during the last three academic years. Her death came four months after a high-level UC committee concluded that the university's overtaxed mental health services fell "significantly short" and that the 10-campus system must urgently expand its counseling programs."

We have had an increasing number of students with serious mental health problems while services are lacking," said UC Santa Barbara Vice Chancellor Michael Young, co-chairman of the Student Mental Health Committee. "We just don't have the appropriate level of support to have healthy campuses."

The increase in mental health problems at UC is part of a national trend arising from the growing stress of university life and the growing number of students who arrive at college already under treatment for mental illness, university psychologists and officials say.
The article reports that advances in psychological drug treatment practices have improved the academic chances of students who might not have been able to attend university in earlier years. However, the numbers of students seeking counseling have risen dramatically over the past few years, and many students quit taking their medications and are thus more prone to difficulties at school:

Across the country, about 1,300 college students a year commit suicide, experts say. Though university students are less likely than other age and occupational groups to take their own lives, suicide remains their second-leading cause of death....

For campus counselors who deal daily with depressed and disturbed students, the April 16 massacre and suicide at Virginia Tech by deranged student Seng-hui Cho was the realization of their worst nightmare. But on a daily basis, campus counselors are stretched thin trying to help students who are recovering from traumatic breakups, suffering from eating disorders or who intentionally cut themselves. At the same time, counselors must cope with students who disrupt classes, create disturbances in residence halls or stalk women....

At UC Berkeley, 45% of students surveyed in 2004 said they had experienced an emotional problem in the previous 12 months that significantly affected their wellbeing or academic performance. Nearly 10% said they had seriously contemplated suicide.At UC Santa Barbara a decade ago, an average of 21 students a quarter came to the counseling center to report they were experiencing an emotional crisis. Now, more than 200 students a quarter come for help, saying they are in a crisis.
The article mentions the case of David Attias, a UC Santa Barbara student with a history of psychological problems, who mowed-down a group of students partying in the streets of Isla Vista in 2001:

One of UC's worst tragedies occurred at Santa Barbara in 2001 when student David Attias drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians in the student community of Isla Vista, killing four people. He claimed he was the "angel of death."

Attias had been on medication since the age of 11 for bipolar disorder and other conditions. After his arrest, he said he had stopped taking his drugs because he wanted to be like other students.

In hopes of preventing similar incidents, UCSB now collects information on students who may be troubled and intervenes if they begin acting out. Like other schools, Santa Barbara has a crisis response team that includes police officers, counselors and administrators.

Other campuses are also focusing on prevention. UC Berkeley, through a federal grant, has trained nearly 600 faculty, staff members and students to spot signs of depression and posted green stickers across the campus to show students where they can get help.
This last mention about UC Berkeley's efforts to increase training and awareness among faculty is precisely the types of reforms I've been advocating on my campus in the e-mail memorandum I sent out, as well as the town hall forum my department sponsored in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. I will continue to post on these issues, as well as advocate for increased preparedness among faculty and staff on campus, the personnel who really are the initial-responders when emergencies occur.

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