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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

Students and Suicide: Bring It Up

August 21, 2000|JERRY HICKS

Our son began his first day in college last week. He's excited; so are we.

We have worries; he seems carefree. So far.

My wife and I have been there. We know the pressures. So do many of you.

But what you may not know--I certainly did not--is that the pressures on many students are so horrendous, they actually contemplate taking their own lives.

A new study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 10% of college students surveyed have contemplated suicide within the last year. And 7% of them actually went to the effort to come up with a plan.

"The figures don't surprise me; in fact, they might be conservative," Melisa Poulos, executive director of Samaritans, a suicide prevention agency headquartered in Boston, told an Internet group.

Deborah Kraus agrees. She's a counselor at the University of Michigan's counseling and psychological services office. She's convinced that reckless driving and other high-risk behaviors sometimes mask suicide attempts.

Kathy O'Byrne, a psychologist at Cal State Fullerton, who is in charge of freshman services, said some students suffer from the "pile-on" effect. Said O'Byrne:

"Any time you have a major transition in your life, it's difficult. A lot of students come here not knowing anyone; they're on their own, and it's overwhelming. They've lost their social support system."

But add to that, she said, the pressure to perform well academically, plus juggle work and classes just to make ends meet.

"Maybe you were a superstar in high school, but here you're not so confident," she said. "Or maybe you're the first one in your family ever to go to college. These all help pile on the pressure."

At the University of Michigan, said Kraus, each student is asked questions about death or dying, to help identify what counseling is needed. At Cal State Fullerton, said O'Byrne, the university staff is trying to come up with new ways to ensure that students see a counselor as soon as possible, instead of waiting until their sophomore year. Too many students see only an academic counselor, she said, when they also need psychological counseling to help them through the tough years.

Here's a further breakdown of the CDC statistics:

* Neither gender was more prone to suicide.

* Most were under 25, either freshmen or sophomores, and nonwhite.

* Those who drink, take drugs or smoke are twice as likely to think about suicide as those who do not.

What's not known, the CDC emphasizes, is whether drugs lead to thoughts of suicide or whether suicidal thoughts from other factors lead to drug use. Its experts believe it probably happens both ways.

Poulos from the Samaritans group recommends that if you know someone on campus who may be suffering from depression, don't hesitate to talk with that person openly about suicide. "Talking opens the door safely," she said.

If you're on a college campus and you don't know whom to call, go ahead and start with an academic counselor. That person will know whom to refer you to.

"Help is always available," said O'Byrne of Cal State Fullerton. "We just have to make sure students know that."

If you want to learn more about depression and college students, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at http://www.cdc.gov.

Readers can reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com.

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