Colleges: Preventing Suicides

The third apparent suicide at New York University in less than 40 days sent shock waves of sadness and concern across college campuses nationwide. Two students fell to their deaths from the 10th-floor balcony of the school library; a third fell from a sixth-floor window in a nearby building. Now NEWSWEEK has learned that Columbia, Harvard, Yale and MIT have been in discussions since last November with The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to suicide prevention, about developing the first-ever intercollegiate study to determine which kinds of programs make a measurable difference in reducing campus suicides. Another focus of the pilot study will be determining which programs are most effective at getting kids into counseling: undergrads who commit suicide are usually not the ones who reach out for help. "Once they're in the mental-health services, we're not as worried about them," says Dr. Richard Kadison of Harvard. "It's getting them in the door."

Since the death of Elizabeth Shin at MIT in 2000, colleges have taken extra steps to make sure the record number of undergraduates with mental-health problems are getting the care they need. Liability is also a concern: after Ferrum College freshman Michael Frentzel hanged himself in 2000, his family alleged in a federal lawsuit that the Virginia school had ignored signs that he was likely to inflict self-harm. In an undisclosed financial settlement this summer, the school admitted "shared responsibility" for Frentzel's death--the first time a college had ever done so. The wider academic community is awaiting the outcome of the Shin family suit against MIT, which alleges the school, overly concerned with Elizabeth's privacy, wrongly neglected to involve them in her care. Despite the unusual timing of the deaths at NYU, suicide among college students is half as frequent as it is among nonstudents of the same age.