After a string of student deaths last semester, including three suicides, Penn bolstered its mental health staffing and created a task force to study how to improve campus resources. But just one month into a new school year, there have been two more student suicides, making six since August 2013.
Experts who study suicides at universities have noted the tendency for student suicides to occur in waves, with no clear reason for a beginning or end. In this sense, there is little that can be understood about the abnormally high number of suicides at Penn over the last year — just as little is known about how to prevent yet another from happening.
“There’s almost a sense that these things pick up some kind of momentum,” said Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation, an organization studying prevention of suicides on college campuses. “At any given time in a large enough population, with a certain number of people struggling with depression or other mental illnesses that predispose them to self-harm, people will begin to pick up things from their surroundings.”
The phenomenon has been dubbed the “contagion effect,” and has been witnessed at other universities similar to Penn over the years. From 2009 to 2010, six students committed suicide at Cornell University, three of them jumping off campus bridges within a month’s span. At New York University, six students killed themselves from 2003 to 2004 by jumping off buildings.
Between 6.5 and 7.5 college students out of every 100,000 commit suicide each year, according to a 2009 study, and 18 percent of undergraduate students have seriously considered attempting suicide in their lifetimes. From August 2013 to now, Penn’s student suicide rate has been higher than the average, but is likely to drop back down, like at Cornell and NYU.
“I think every college or university at times will have an experience like this where you have a cluster of student deaths or suicides,” said Greg Eells, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell. “I think it’s important not to jump to conclusions or place blame.”
Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, whose office oversees Penn’s CAPS, declined to comment for this article. CAPS Director Bill Alexander did not respond to requests for comment.
Students have called out the administration for a perceived slow and callous response in the aftermath of the suicides, while also calling on the University to prevent similar incidents in the future. But the appropriate response to student suicides is not entirely clear, experts say.
“We are very bad at predicting what individual person will commit suicide, even though we can make changes on the whole with things like counseling services,” said Schwartz, who has consulted with Penn’s mental health task force in developing recommendations to improve mental wellness on campus. “Even though there are things you can do to make the problem better or worse across large samples and large groups, it doesn’t mean you can control what’s happening with any individual on campus.”
Over the years, colleges have taken on a growing number of responsibilities on behalf of their students. But the lingering question is how far outside of the academic sphere a university should reach. When it comes to punishing sexual assault, for example, some critics have argued that universities are not equipped to deal with violent sex crimes. Mental health could fall into the same category — issues like suicides and severe mental illness are still largely a mystery with no clear solution.
President Amy Gutmann, however, said that mental wellness is one of the responsibilities that the administration will take on.
“I avidly believe that universities have the mission of educating the whole person, as not only the mind, but the hearts of their students,” Gutmann said in an interview last week. “It is an ongoing mission of the University. It’s not a mission accomplished.”
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