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Student death ruled suicide at Harvard

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / April 27, 2012
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The state medical examiner’s office has ruled that a Harvard College senior who was found dead in her room Saturday morning committed suicide, the fifth reported case involving a Boston-area college student this academic year.

Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the agency that oversees the medical examiner, said Thursday that the cause of death of Wendy Chang, 22, of Irvine, Calif., has been ruled as asphyxia by hanging.

In a statement, Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said Chang’s death was a tragedy for the entire campus.

“The safety, well-being, and health of our students, including their mental health, are critically important to us,’’ Neal said. “Harvard has a comprehensive system in place to support student mental health, and we have reached out to students repeatedly to let them know that services are available to them, particularly after the loss of any member of our community.’’

Evelynn M. Hammonds, dean of the college, told students last week that Chang was an English major who had just completed an honors thesis on Edith Wharton. She was also a member of the Crimson Key Society, a student group that gives tours of campus, wrote for the Harvard Crimson student newspaper, and worked as a designer for the Harvard Advocate, a college literary journal, Hammonds said.

In a message to students on Thursday, she reminded them that mental health counselors are available on campus.

“As with any tragic loss within our community, everyone may be affected, including close friends, teammates, colleagues, and even those who didn’t get the chance to know Wendy,’’ Hammonds wrote.

Friends remembered Chang last week as a warm and engaging woman who combined academic excellence with a love for painting and cooking, the Crimson reported.

Her death is the latest tragedy involving Boston-area college students. Two MIT undergraduates took their own lives in the fall, and a Suffolk University senior died last week after apparently jumping from a campus building. Earlier this month, a Boston University graduate student died in an apparent suicide after ingesting a toxic chemical in her South End apartment.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that 1,100 college students commit suicide each year, and the vast majority have an underlying mental health disorder at the time of their death.

About 85 percent of all victims do not seek help because they are either reluctant to discuss their problems with a stranger, fear the judgment of friends, or do not know where to turn, according to the foundation.

A 2011 survey by the American College Health Association found that 45 percent of college students and almost half of female students had “felt things were hopeless’’ at some point in the past year. More than 16 percent said they had felt that way in the past two weeks. Thirty percent had “felt so depressed it was difficult to function,’’ the association said.

Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of the Minnesota-based group Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, said several factors, including the difficult job market, can put some college students at risk of harming themselves as graduation approaches.

“It’s harder to find jobs right now, and they need to know that it’s not about them personally,’’ he said, adding that students are not always prepared for the realities of paying bills and loans.

He said colleges across the country could do more to help students with the transition to life after graduation, including recommending meetings with career and financial counselors.

“I think sometimes the schools are so focused on getting the kids in that they miss that there are these incredible stresses for students leaving,’’ he said.

Peter Schworm of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.

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