Archive for Monday, December 1, 2003

Campus counselors seeing increasing numbers of suicidal students

December 1, 2003


Frank DeSalvo has seen a shift in the students who enter the Counseling and Psychological Services office at Kansas University.

They're coming in larger numbers and they have more severe problems.

"It really speaks to the increasing stress in our society in general," said DeSalvo, CAPS director. "It trickles down to the students as well. There's not much difference between students and the general public."

Nationwide, universities are seeing more suicides among students, which is leading some campuses to bolster mental health services for students.

According to the Jed Foundation, which provides mental health resources to universities and students, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students. About 1,100 students commit suicide each year.

The suicide rate for 15-to-25 year olds is 300 percent higher now than it was in the 1950s.

DeSalvo said KU didn't keep data on how many students committed suicide. Suicides are difficult to track, he said.

But according to a study in 2002, 8 percent of the 4,450 counseling sessions performed at CAPS somehow involved discussion of suicidal thoughts or tendencies.

"That is a pretty significant number," he said.

Increasing numbers

The most common reasons for contemplating suicide were romantic relationships (22 percent), parent/family problems (20 percent) and academic concerns (19 percent).

DeSalvo also said more KU students were being hospitalized for their mental and emotional problems. When he first started at KU in 1991, CAPS referred an average of four or five students for hospitalization each semester. Now, that number is up to 13 to 15 a semester.

But while demand for services is increasing -- and cases are getting more complex -- staffing at CAPS is remaining steady. There are seven psychologists offering clinical services. The office also employs three full-time doctoral interns in psychology and two part-time interns in social work.

DeSalvo said CAPS counselors were sometimes forced to prioritize which clients they saw because of time limitations. But he noted that most clients need only one to three sessions.

"We need to increase the resources available, and get faculty and mental health professionals working together with offices on campus, to help students organize their lives in ways that are generally healthy," DeSalvo said.

The issue of college suicides received new attention this fall after the apparent suicides of three students at New York University. Several efforts are under way nationwide to help combat the problem.

Helping students

The Jed Foundation was formed by Donna and Phillip Satow after the suicide of their son in 1998 at the University of Arizona. The foundation includes a Web site,, linking students to mental health centers and confidential help.

"A Web site doesn't solve the problem," Donna Satow said. "But it might help one or two kids."

Donna and Phillip Satow sit beside a photograph of their late son,
Jed, at their apartment in New York. After their son's suicide five
years ago, the Satows started the Jed Foundation.

Donna and Phillip Satow sit beside a photograph of their late son, Jed, at their apartment in New York. After their son's suicide five years ago, the Satows started the Jed Foundation.

Ron Gibori, executive director of Ulifeline, said schools have campaigns urging students not to binge drink or to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. But suicides typically get less attention.

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.

"There's a culture of perfectionism that really wasn't there before," said Sherry Benton, a Kansas State University psychologist who co-wrote 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 13,357 consultations at the Kansas State counseling center over a 13-year period, KSU researchers determined the number of students at the school with suicidal tendencies tripled between 1988 and 2001. Similar data at KU was not available.

Last year, Illinois Wesleyan University 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 Connie Horton, the university's director of counseling and consultation services. "This is just one exam in one class in one semester of their lives."

-- The Associated Press contributed information to this report.

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