Cracking Under Pressure

In recent years, students at New York University, Columbia University, Hofstra University, and CUNY Hunter, among others, have committed suicide on campus. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age students-second only to accidents.

Recent studies have revealed some staggering numbers: nearly 4,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 committed suicide in the United States in 2006 and, according to the American College Health Association, 10 percent of college students seriously consider attempting suicide at least once in their collegiate careers. According to U.S. News and World Report, every year about “1,100 college students take their own lives, and many thousands more make an attempt.”

The problem, though not prevalent at St. John’s, has not gone unnoticed by the University’s Counseling Center.

“Suicide is almost like the magic word,” said Dr. W. David Harmon, director of the St. John’s Counseling Center. “Part of our intake procedure here is to ask if a person is feeling suicidal and gauge their responses, and often times they’ll tell us the truth. Then we make judgments about what can and should be done based off of that.”

Harmon continued by saying that students seeking help for medical depression may meet with the Counseling Center’s psychiatrist. In addition to providing the University with several counselors to address student depression (which is the leading cause of suicide), the Counseling Center performs four to five screening processes per academic year.

“We do four or five different screenings every year in different areas of mental health- alcohol consumption, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, things of that sort,” Harmon said.

“We encourage people who score in particular levels to come and see us to try and fix their various problems.”

The mystique surrounding suicide, and its perpetual association with college students, is kept alive by the unfortunate events on campuses like NYU and George Washington University, which have both lost multiple students in recent years to suicides.

The association between universities and suicide is, as Harmon said, attributed to several reasons: “the medications that people take have gotten so much better that folks who ordinarily would not attend college are able to do so…[when medications] start to make the person feel better, the first reaction is to say ‘I feel better and I don’t need to take this any more.

He added, “Coming to college is a tremendous change from being at home, being at high school every day. Sometimes, combine that with drinking and that makes for a dangerous situation.”

Fortunately, the only linkage between St. John’s and suicide in recent years occurred in 1997, when James Batallas, a St. John’s alum and Suffolk county police officer, took his own life at the young age of 26.

So while universities in and around New York seem to be consistently linked to suicides, St. John’s has avoided a similar fate.

Harmon hypothesizes that the reason behind this is “the training received by the RAs [Residence Assistants] and RDs [Residence Directors].” According to Harmon, the RAs and RDs go through training and screening processes that provide them with the tools to recognize when residence students need help.

“We do trainings for the RAs and RDs to give them a sense of what to look for,” Harmon said. “One of us at the center is always available by phone to give counseling to people who call us with these kinds of problems…I think the training that we do is good; the people who are hired to work in the residence halls are also good people. I would think that has something to do with the lack of suicides here on campus.”