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Third suicide at William and Mary illustrates challenge of prevention

Campaigns seek to counter stigma of seeking help

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post / November 26, 2010

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Friends of Whitney Mayer awoke one morning last month and saw her final status update on Facebook: “thank you my friends. I love you, I love you, I love all of you. but I guess not enough, I’m sorry.’’

The sophomore’s body was found near Lake Matoaka, her favorite spot on campus. It was the third apparent suicide this calendar year at the College of William and Mary, leaving the school grappling with questions about what could have prompted the deaths and how to prevent them.

Before this year there had not been a suicide at the school in five years. And there is no way of knowing how the suicide rate at William and Mary compares with other schools’ because no independent group has done that type of analysis.

Still, William and Mary, an elite state university with nearly 8,000 students in Virginia’s Tidewater region, responded with new initiatives. College officials dispatched grief counselors. The student government put notes on dorm room doors listing the warning signs of severe depression.

“Even if these aren’t people we know directly, you always know someone who knew them,’’ said Wesley Ng, president of a student health group. “It’s scary when it touches you so closely. . . . A lot of people are asking ‘Why? What could I have done?’ ’’

In February, Dominique Chandler, a senior psychology major, was found dead in her dorm room. In April, the body of Ian Smith-Christmas, a junior geology major, was discovered in his car, parked in Virginia Beach. And Mayer was found Oct. 15.

The student newspaper, the Flat Hat, raised questions about a decades-old label with this headline: “Surge in deaths leaves College battling reputation as a ‘suicide school.’ ’’ College officials said such suggestions are unfair; William and Mary had 11 suicides in the 41 years before the recent deaths.

Few dispute that the school is filled with more than its share of high achievers, some of whom have difficulty admitting they might need help coping.

Students often joke about their devotion to academics and campus involvement, sometimes using the term “TWAMP,’’ which stands for “Typical William and Mary Person.’’ On a recent Thursday night, the town’s half-hearted attempt at a bar scene — three delis near campus that serve alcohol — was sparsely filled. The library was packed.

Campus suicide awareness campaigns often have focused on getting students comfortable with using words such as “depression’’ and dispelling myths about the counseling center.

“None of the students on this campus want to have problems,’’ said Caitlin Goldblatt, a senior literary and cultural studies major who was friends with Mayer. “They want to be perfect.’’

Nationwide, the number of college students who have mental illnesses increases each year, as improved diagnoses and medication make it easier for them to stay in school and manage campus life. But problems can intensify amid the stresses of social conflicts, course work, and the difficulties of transitioning to life away from home.

“Generations ago, some of the people we see on our campus now would not have made it to college,’’ said Patricia Volp, William and Mary’s dean of students.

Although statistics on college suicide rates are limited, specialists say at least 1,100 students kill themselves each year nationwide, making suicide the second most common cause of death for college students, after car accidents. Still, people of college age who are enrolled in classes are less likely to commit suicide than those not enrolled in school.

“Being in a college can be a protective factor,’’ as students are part of a community stocked with easily accessible resources, said Elana Premack Sandler, a specialist at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a national group. “They can envision their future and they have that kind of structure.’’

But it can be difficult for colleges to monitor the health of thousands of students while also adhering to privacy laws and making appropriate decisions about when someone is too ill to stay enrolled.

“Who is going to speak up if the consequence of speaking up is getting kicked out?’’ said Courtney Knowles, the executive director of the Jed Foundation, a New York-based group that seeks to prevent campus suicides. “Sometimes staying in school is the best thing for a student who is struggling.’’

Many colleges, including William and Mary, have added information about mental health issues to orientation sessions for students and parents. Officials also have trained professors and residence hall advisers to spot the signs of depression.

New York University, which has struggled with student suicides in recent years, screens every student who visits the health center for depression.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology extended its counseling center hours into the night several days a week and encourages faculty members living in the residence halls to monitor the stress levels of students.

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