An increase in the number of student suicides in recent months has IPFW officials ramping up mental health services and reaching out to students with additional prevention and awareness programs.
Since the start of fall classes in late August, IPFW has had three student deaths that have been reported as suicides, according to George McClellan, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management at IPFW.
All three happened off campus and at least one was outside Allen County, university officials said.
McClellan said in his seven years with the university, there has been an average of one student suicide each school year.
“It’s a remarkably different situation than our typical year,” he said about the three deaths already reported during the 2013-14 school year. “It’s just very unusual.”
McClellan said he has spoken with vice chancellors from other universities – some in-state and others several states away – and several have reported an increase in suicides in recent years.
But the question no one can answer is: Why?
“I’ve asked that question of lots and lots of folks and no one has an answer,” McClellan said.
Victor Schwartz said it’s not surprising that the “why” question is so difficult to solve.
Schwartz is a medical director for The Jed Foundation, an organization that tracks and studies suicides among college students.
“Rarely do you have a case where it’s just one factor,” he said. “Among the undergraduate population it could be depression or substance abuse … or family relationships or even romantic relationships. But rarely is it just one of those things.”
The annual rate of suicide among U.S. college students is about 1 in 10,000 students. And at least nationally, there doesn’t seem to be an increase in the number of cases per year, he said.
“It’s important for people to understand that the rate of students attending college who commit suicide is significantly lower – about half – what the number is for students in that age group who aren’t attending college,” he said.
Patt Kite, a spokeswoman for the Allen County Coroner’s Office, said local data also reflect this trend.
Kite said the majority of suicide cases in the 17 to 26 age range are not students who are enrolled at a college or university. Last year, the coroner’s office saw an increase in the number of suicides, but several of those included high school students, she said.
“We’re familiar with all of our cases and we just don’t see a lot of college students who commit suicide,” Kite said.
But college students committing suicide is seen by the public as a strange event and tends to attract more attention, Schwartz explained.
“Of course, anytime someone dies it’s tragic … and the other problem is we tend to see clusters like (what is happening at IPFW),” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said schools that see an increase in suicides need to keep a close eye on the student population to make sure there’s no link between the deaths and to make sure students are aware of the various services offered them.
“It could be the case that it’s just a statistical blip and next year the numbers will return to normal. But (IPFW officials) really need to see what happens over a period of time,” he said.
No trend at other schools
Other local colleges and universities say they haven’t seen this sort of trend among student suicides.
Officials at Manchester College said it has been at least a decade since the last student suicide and those at Huntington University said they haven’t had a student suicide in at least 13 years.
At Indiana Tech, no student suicides have been reported in 17 years and at the University of Saint Francis, it’s been more than 18 years since the last suicide. Trine University officials said it has been at least eight years since the last student suicide.
Ivy Tech Community College Northeast is not required to keep data on the number of suicides because it is considered a commuter college, officials said.
“Those types of situations more likely occur on a campus that has a dorm setting,” Chris Cathcart, vice chancellor for student affairs at Ivy Tech, said.
However, the college does have the Behavioral Intervention Team tasked with reaching out to students suffering from thoughts of depression and suicide, he said.
Programs in place
McClellan said IPFW students have, for many years, reported above-average levels of depression on health screenings.
“We’ve always had significant levels of depression, higher than the average of other colleges,” McClellan said.
But aside from the typical college stresses of finances, relationships and balancing school and work, there’s little evidence about why the levels are so high, he added.
“What we do know is that this has been a really challenging fall and it definitely has our attention,” McClellan said.
IPFW has several programs available to students struggling with mental health issues, including a Peer Health Educator Program, training for professors and resident assistants to identify students who are struggling and campus police officers trained in crisis intervention.
The Peer Health Educator Program includes students who are recruited and trained in health education so they can talk to their peers about the importance of exercise, stress management and a good diet, McClellan said.
In August 2012, IPFW was awarded a grant of $285,393 to fund a suicide-prevention program called COMPASS – Community Partners Against Student Suicide.
COMPASS is primarily focused on military veteran students, racial and ethnic minority students and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning community.
McClellan said after the second suicide, the university also began a program called “Suicide: Talk about it” designed to encourage students to talk about their mental health.
This sort of communication, especially after a community has lost several students, is critical to making sure those who need the help get it, he said.
“It’s an act of caring and we’ve got to help everybody reframe that,” he said. “ … It’s not an act of tattling or snitching.
“It’s an act of caring.”