Attempted Suicides on Campus Explored and Explained



Last Tuesday, March 30, a Yale student committed suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building. Several weeks earlier, on March 12, a Cornell University student jumped off a bridge over one of the gorges on campus the day after the body of another student who had committed suicide was recovered. The most recent suicide brought the total number of suicides at Cornell to six this academic year, a figure which has drawn national media attention. According to Mark Thompson, director of Conant House, Colgate’s counseling and psychological services center, there has not been a suicide on campus over the past 13 years that he has worked here; however, there are several suicide attempts

every year.

“I am aware of at least three situations this [academic] year where someone has made an attempt,” Thompson said. “We think about this on a continuum because there are way more people that think about suicide but have not made an attempt. Then there are other things like: was it a conscious attempt, was it an attempt at self-harm? I would be shocked if the number that happened on campus were limited to three.”

According to data provided by Director of Campus Safety Bill Ferguson, Campus Safety has not responded to any calls classified as “Medical/Psychological” in 2010. However, there were 11 such calls in both 2008 and 2009. Moreover, this data only represents the number of medical/psychological calls that Campus Safety received and not the number of hospitalizations that resulted after the call, as Campus Safety does not keep records of this data.

“It’s not unusual for us to have ten to twelve psychiatric hospitalizations a year, which includes more than just suicide attempts,” Thompson said. “Of that number, eight to ten attempts a year is not uncommon.”

In order to prevent suicide on campus, the staff at Conant House seek to educate as many people as possible about signs of depression and how to help someone who is depressed or suicidal through two educational programs, QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) and Campus Connect. Conant House offers QPR training sessions, such as the session on April 9, about six times a year to approximately 20 to 30 faculty, staff and students at a time. Campus Connect training sessions, which are more in-depth but take more time than QPR training sessions, are also offered throughout the year. Additionally, this year, Residential Advisors (RAs) and Community Coordinators (CCs) attended Campus Connect sessions.

“I think QPR is a useful program because it provides students with an understanding of how to deal with a friend or acquaintance who you suspect might be suicidal,” senior Samantha Horn said. “There were several times when someone I knew was making comments or posting things on Facebook that gave me reason to believe that they might be suicidal. In each of those instances, I was confused about how to best handle the situation, and although I talked to the person about it, I was afraid that I might make things worse. QPR helped me to realize that my instincts were correct, and that it’s always better to ask someone and be wrong – even if it makes things awkward – than to make the opposite mistake.”

In addition to training sessions, Conant House offers appointments with the counselors on staff as well as walk-in hours, an on-call counselor 24 hours a day, seven days a week and online materials. However, some students have found that, even with QPR training, neither their training nor the resources at Conant House have been enough to help a friend struggling with depression or other issues. Students quoted below who wished to remain anonymous are recognized by their gender and class year.

“I had a friend last year who had some issues and I wanted to help her but didn’t know how to – it’s just hard to use the QPR training on someone that you are really close to,” a female sophomore who participated in the Peer Counselor training program said. “I wanted to help, but I didn’t know who to talk to and didn’t want to feel like I was telling on her. I ended up going to the counseling center and telling them that I had a friend who needed help and was told that I should ask her to come in for an appointment.

So then I had to be the bad guy and tell her that I went to the counseling center to talk about her and that they suggested she come in for an appointment.”

This female sophomore also added that she believed that the issue was not resolved by Conant House and that the two are now no longer friends as a result of this incident.

When asked why Conant House cannot reach out to a student after a friend has spoken with a counselor, as in the situation described above, Thompson said that such contact would be a breach of confidentiality.

“These recommendations into treatment are the most effective,” Thompson said. “It would be an ethical breach if we disclosed the source of our decision to reach out directly to the student if we did not have permission to do so, unless we believed the student in question was a clear and imminent danger to hurt or kill themself or someone else.”

Another student expressed similar frustrations in a story about a former roommate, who is no longer a student at Colgate, who struggled with an eating disorder and later attempted to commit suicide.

“When I found out that my roommate had an eating disorder through an RA, all that I could think about during that time was how to help her get better,” a female senior said. “I lost a lot of sleep trying to think of how to do this. My RA was not very helpful at all when I tried to talk to him, so I went to another RA. She gave me papers about dealing with eating disorders, signs of eating disorders, etc. While Colgate’s information papers led me up to this point, they did not tell me what to do from there. I told her she should go to counseling because I wanted her to get better and didn’t know how to help her. She convinced me that no counselor has ever been able to help her and that it only makes her feel worse to talk about it. When I checked back in with the RA, she said that this conversation was a big step. I started to watch my friend more for signs and talk to her about her progress, and she told me she was feeling like it could get better. The next semester, everything seemed fine and we didn’t talk about it.”

“Then the migraines started, and it turned out I was wrong. She started getting migraine headaches about two weeks before the incident. They became increasingly worse, even though she was taking medication provided by Colgate’s health center. I found out later that the migraines were probably caused by the reemergence of an eating disorder. Nothing seemed unusual the night of her suicide attempt. We were both studying for a midterm in our room and she said that she wanted to study in the common area of our dorm for a change of scenery. This did not seem unusual and she did not appear to be unhappy. She was alone in the common area, and this is where she poisoned herself. Luckily, someone found her there soon after.”

“I always go over the entire period in my head and try to figure out what went wrong. I wish that I could have helped her to get better, or that somehow I could have known that she wasn’t going to get better. The RA told me that I had done my job by talking to her and that I couldn’t force her into getting help. It was very frustrating, and was especially frustrating at the time when I was told I did all that I could and yet she still did not get better. Something that also frustrates me is that she had an incident a year earlier, in which she was rushed to the hospital due to malnutrition. I did not know her very well when this happened. However, I do know that she was supposed to get mandatory counseling at Colgate and never followed through with it. I wish that Colgate was more strict in forcing her to continue with therapy, even if it meant that she would need to leave Colgate to get more serious treatment.”

Following her friend’s suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization, the student attended a counseling session at Conant House, which she said was helpful. In response to a question about how the University responds when a student does not attend mandated counseling following a hospitalization, Thompson emphasized that Conant House does not provide mandated counseling.

“We do provide mandated assessment, or mandated education sessions – these most often result from alcohol or substance violations – but not mandated counseling,” Thompson said. “We certainly do develop a plan following a hospitalization to can help us best ensure that a student is going to be okay and the issues causing the hospitalization are being addressed. Meeting with a counselor might be part of that plan. The student usually is also meeting with her/his dean to make sure the plan is being followed. If the student decides not to participate in the plan, or not follow the plan that was previously agreed to, then it’s up to the dean to decide if it’s too dangerous for the student to remain on campus. We don’t make that call unless it’s a clear and imminent danger situation.”

Another female senior student, whose friend also attempted to commit suicide and no longer attends Colgate, was upset with the University’s response to the incident.

“I was also upset with the lack of support that Colgate gave to students who were affected by the incident,” she said. “I know that they did not offer any support to the SOMAC volunteers who were on the scene, and that many of those students could have used a more accessible support network at that time. I know that some of my friends went to counseling on their own.”

She also expressed frustration at the way in which the University dealt with her friend’s suicide attempt.

“She left school and Colgate did not allow her to return,” she said. “I was extremely frustrated by that decision because I think she was even more isolated and in a more triggering position back at home than she would have been here. I think the school’s number one concern was to protect itself and to keep the incident quiet to avoid negative PR.”

When discussing the University’s responses to suicide attempts, Thompson noted that a student is not automatically sent home for a medical leave of absence after the attempt; rather, several factors are considered, including where the student is in courses and whether he or she is ready to return to classes. Ultimately, he said, the decision is made by the student’s administrative dean with input from the student, hospital staff, Conant House staff and the student’s parents.

Many of the students interviewed for this article had previously met with a counselor at Conant House for support. While all of those who worked with a counselor said that their session(s) had been helpful, many of them also pointed to issues with Conant House, including the lack of therapy methods for depression beyond talk-therapy, difficulty in getting an appointment except in the case of an emergency, Conant House’s policy that in most cases a student cannot meet with a counselor more than once a week and Conant House’s location.

“I think that the counselors themselves are extremely accessible,” a third senior female, who has gone to Conant House for support, said. “You can make an appointment or come to walk-in hours. Plus, there’s no denying that the 24/7 on-call counselor is an extreme asset to our school’s mental health services. However, I think it’s ridiculous that a student cannot drive to the counseling center simply because it is up the hill. You either have to walk up the hill or take the cruiser and then walk toward Drake, which is bound to draw some looks if you’re not a sophomore. Either way, if you’re depressed and looking like crap, you have to face other people on your way.”

Despite multiple suicide attempts a year, potential issues with Conant House and the University’s suicide prevention policies, Colgate has never suffered from such suicide-related death and trauma as nearby Cornell has experienced this school year.

“Thankfully there have not been [completed suicides] and I think it’s because we have people who are really involved and really care,” Thompson said, “but another thing is that we’re just lucky.”