ANNAPOLIS – In the past 10 years, only two schools in the University of Maryland System have experienced the impact of a suicide committed on campus.
But off the grounds, the numbers remain elusive. No authority at any of the system’s 11 campuses tracks suicide statistics for enrollment overall.
At large schools, such as The University of Maryland at College Park and Towson State University, campus police deal only with the suicides on university property — leaving out instances where students commit suicide elsewhere.
Capital News Service surveyed campus police departments and other university sources to determine whether suicide, the second leading cause of death on U.S. campuses, was pervasive in a system that enrolls over 100,000 students in any given year.
Since 1987, the University of Maryland at College Park has had three suicides on campus and Towson State University has had one.
Eight other schools — Bowie State University, Coppin State University in Baltimore, Frostburg State University, Salisbury State University, University of Maryland University College in College Park, University of Maryland at Baltimore County, University of Maryland at Baltimore and University of Baltimore – – reported no suicides on campus during the period studied.
The University of Maryland at Eastern Shore had no campus suicides in the last three years — the extent of their database. But S. Keith Bingham, the archivist there, said he was unaware of any prior problems.
Dr. Mark Weist, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, said that the peak age for committing suicide is 22 — coinciding with the college years. Juveniles begin contemplating the act around age 11.
Nationally, on-campus suicides are rising. Across the United State, of 350 colleges and universities responding to the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, 35 percent reported at least one suicide on campus last year — a seven percent increase from two years ago.
Experts agree that the presence and effectiveness of a campus counseling center is paramount.
“Most colleges offer counseling to students,” said Weist. But while some centers are “well published and utilized,” others are not. “Students need to know about them,” he said.
Cpl. Mary Brock, University of Maryland Police Department public information officer, said the Counseling Center and Department of Resident Life “have become more aggressive and are able to help people before they become suicidal.”
College Park’s three suicides all occurred between 1991 and 1992. At present, the campus is home to 24,529 undergraduate students and 8,477 graduate students.
In 1991, a student jumped off of the eighth floor of a campus building. In 1992, a student drank poison from her laboratory in the Zoology/Psychology Building and on graduation day a male student shot himself on McKeldin Mall, the campus’ main grassy area.
At Towson, the suicide was a self-inflicted gun shot wound in spring 1995. In spring 1996 the university had 12,722 undergraduate students and 1,829 graduate students.
Dr. Jack Vaeth, attending psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt, said a student’s decision to attempt suicide stems from a variety of circumstances. Many find leaving home difficult. Not only is their support group gone, but if something happens in the family — such as divorce or death — students often blame themselves.
Another factor is college relationships, perhaps the most intense of their lives, Vaeth said. A breakup can cause a student to make an impulsive decision — even suicide.
Students are also exposed to a new culture that includes experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
Many students also feel pressure to succeed, and that they are disappointing their parents if they bring home failing grades, Vaeth said.
Resident assistants — student dormitory leaders — are trained to recognize signs of depression including a change in sleeping patterns, strange eating habits or lack of energy, said John Kandell, assistant director of College Park’s Counseling Center.
Of the 1,500 students who visit the center each year, eight percent express thoughts about suicide, Kandell said.
But Weist noted that students’ problems are often not “observable and often not detected.” So those students go untreated, he said.
Dr. David Jobes, a suicidologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., said that being in a campus setting is actually a preventive measure, for more college students commit suicide during the months when school is out.
In this age group, Jobes said, most suicides occur in May, June and July — right about the time that students are leaving school for the summer or graduating.
Weist said that as people move into their late 20s and 30s, the risk of suicide decreases. It goes up again as they enter their so-called golden years as senior citizens. -30-