Epidemic of suicide, depression hits colleges

The rate of suicide and depression on college campuses is rising, and last month the trend hit St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

The rate of suicide and depression on college campuses is rising, and last month the trend hit St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

Hard.

Two students killed themselves, causing the university’s president to send a mass e-mail encouraging students to relax and, if needed, get help. The deaths heightened concerns about the economy’s pressure on anxious students and the colleges that are trying to help them.

“We are not talking about test anxiety here,” university president Earl Potter later said. “We are talking about a stew of challenges, on top of which our students have to deal with academic success and often the challenge of finding money to keep themselves in school.”

Potter called mental health problems among college students “a national crisis.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. About 1.1 percent of 8,000 Minnesota post-secondary students surveyed by the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service in 2008 had attempted suicide within the past 12 months, up slightly from the year before.

At colleges around the nation, more students are seeking help.

The percentage of students who reported a diagnosis of depression rose from 10.3 percent in 2000 to 14.9 percent in spring of 2008 – the most recent comparable data – according to the American College Health Association’s annual National College Health Assessment.

This is the busiest time of year, several counselling centres said, because class work ramps up and finals loom.

Colleges are responding with a mix of counseling and support services. The efforts go beyond suicide prevention, addressing stress and depression. Studies show that good mental health leads to good grades and graduation, so schools say that keeping students healthy is an important part of their mission.

But as a recent Minnesota State Colleges and University report found, counseling costs money, and there’s no clear source of it.

“Institutions like ours were never funded to provide the services we need to provide today,” Potter said.

Even in high school, Nellie Brau was a perfectionist — an athlete, an artist, an A student. Her stress about succeeding grew, and after asking her mom for help, doctors diagnosed depression and anxiety. She wanted to take action, so she started a group for students to discuss their mental illness in an open, confidential environment. Being proactive helped her get healthy.

But then came college, where she “absolutely felt like a number.” The depression returned.

“I didn’t reach out, I didn’t know where to turn,” said Brau, now a junior majoring in global studies and French at the University of Minnesota.

She has noticed that the university has become more vocal about mental health.

It launched a task force that recommended creating a website where students could learn about mental health, get screened for common afflictions and find help.

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