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MIT student’s death ruled a suicide

Colombia native majored in math

Nicolas Del Castillo planned to study math at least since he was 8 years old, according to his father. Nicolas Del Castillo planned to study math at least since he was 8 years old, according to his father.
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / September 13, 2011

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Nicolas Del Castillo, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore who was found dead in his dorm room Sept. 4, committed suicide by hanging himself, according to the medical examiner’s office.

A death certificate filed yesterday with the Cambridge city clerk lists the cause of death as asphyxia.

MIT and Castillo’s family held a memorial service for him Sunday at the campus chapel.

The university also published an obituary Saturday on the MIT website filling out details of Castillo’s short life. He had just turned 17 when he arrived at MIT from Bogota, and had been planning to study math at least since he was 8 years old, said his father, Henry Del Castillo. “He asked me, ‘Papi, is there a mathematical way to determine all the prime numbers?’ ’’ Castillo told the university’s news service. “I told him that’s a problem that mathematicians have been working on for years and years. And he said, ‘I’m going to solve it.’ ’’

Nicolas Castillo, a math major, maintained close links to home, spending the summer there training young participants in an international math competition.

At MIT, he was bright but quiet. “He was a lovely young gentleman,’’ said Diana Henderson, a literature professor who taught him last fall.

His death is the first undergraduate suicide at MIT since the 2009 death of Kabelo Zwane, also an international student, in the fall semester of his sophomore year.

After a spate of suicides in the late 1990s and early 2000s, MIT expanded its mental health services. About 15 percent of students now visit campus counselors in an average year, and the university also screens students for depression and other risk factors for suicide. In the mid-2000s, it tried out a suicide prevention program created by the Air Force that appears to significantly reduce rates.

“We have made continuous improvements and expansions of our services to students and those who teach and support them in the nine years I have been at MIT,’’ said Alan Siegel, chief of the university’s mental health and counseling service.

MIT is not the only campus to expand its efforts. Although college students are actually less likely to kill themselves than peers of the same age who are not in school, many universities have expanded counseling to students in the last decade. Some even have depression screening in place for all students who visit the campus health center for any reason.

“Colleges and universities are working hard to prevent suicide, and getting individuals into counseling is a pivotal part of the efforts,’’ said Jason Parcover, who directs the counseling center at Loyola University in Maryland.

But counseling is not a panacea, and many students who commit suicide never visit their campus mental health clinics. A national review of 103 student suicides in 2009 reported that only 19 percent of those students had sought counseling.

About 1,110 college students commit suicide every year.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com.