Devastated by their son’s suicide during his sophomore year in college, Donna and Phillip Satow channeled their grief into reaching other students who have contemplated taking their own lives.
Now, three years later, the Jed Foundation is working with 120 colleges and universities around the country, providing resources that include Ulifeline, a free Web site linking students to mental health centers and confidential help.
It’s one sign, some experts say, that colleges are becoming more attuned to the issue — even if it’s just one step.
“A Web site doesn’t solve the problem,” said Donna Satow, whose son, Jed Satow, was at the University of Arizona when he died in 1998. “But it might help one or two kids.”
Second only to automobile accidents, suicide is the leading killer of college students — claiming the lives of an estimated 1,100 each year, according to the Jed Foundation. The American Association of Suicidology reports on its Web site that the suicide rate for 15-to-25 year olds is 300 percent higher than it was in the 1950s.
In the aftermath of three apparent suicides this fall at New York University, nearly 100 colleges and universities contacted the Jed Foundation about offering the non-profit’s services to their students.
The Jed Foundation also recently joined with Columbia, Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to begin developing more effective suicide prevention programs on campuses.
Ron Gibori, the executive director of Ulifeline, credits schools for recognizing the problem. Colleges often have campaigns urging students not to binge drink, or to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. But suicide gets less attention, he says.
Some schools are focusing on the causes of suicidal tendencies. Counselors say perfectionism — in combination with the long-recognized problems such as depression, bipolar disorder and drug abuse — is starting to play a larger role in college-age suicides.
The downside of prefection
“The good sign is that (students are) driven, they’re motivated and they’re highly conscientious,” said Connie Horton, the director of counseling and consultation services at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.
“But the downside is that they can be really hard on themselves and normal failures can be viewed as disasters.”
An unprecedented pressure to excel — often beginning in early childhood — may contribute to an apparent increase in suicidal tendencies among today’s college students, said Kansas State University psychologist Sherry Benton.
“There’s a culture of perfectionism that really wasn’t there before,” said Benton, the co-author of a study on college suicides released earlier this year.
“Students were just as high-achieving a generation ago. But they didn’t have this sense of perfectionism at this level.”
Based on 13,257 consultations at the Kansas State counseling center over a 13-year period, Benton and other KSU researchers determined that the number of students at the school with suicidal tendencies tripled between 1988 and 2001.
Last year, Illinois Wesleyan began offering “perfectionistic thinking seminars” to teach students that a less-than-flawless academic effort doesn’t equal failure.
“We try to help them put things in perspective,” said Horton. “That this is just one exam in one class in one semester of their lives.”
Communication is the real key to prevention, said Ross Szabo.
In appearances before high school and college students on behalf of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, Szabo relates how his battles with bipolar disorder, depression and anger resulted in a failed suicide attempt when he was in high school.
He encourages students not to suppress their problems but to share them with friends, family or counselors.
“One of the things I see is that young people feel alone and don’t know that they can talk about it,” said Szabo, 25, a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. “A lot of times they don’t have the words to start talking about it. And their form of expression is to wind up taking their own lives.”