Suicide Second Leading Cause of Death Among College Students
Isolation Too Often Leads to Thoughts of Suicide
October 21, 2004 7:19 PM
Soon after her mother died, and just four years after her father passed away, SF State student Melanie Puno says she thought a lot about death and dying. Now a 22-year-old junior majoring in liberal studies, Puno was only 13 when she became an orphan. Then, battling grief and remorse while feeling intense anger and confusion difficult to describe, Puno says she reached the breaking point late one night during her first year of high school.
“I wrote a letter, I had it planned out,” says Puno. “I didn’t think about the future. I just spiraled out of control.”
Alone in her room that night, Puno prepared to end her pain permanently. Wrapping loneliness and loss into a strike against her own life, Puno says she felt then that death was the only option she had left. As she talks about her suicide attempt eight years ago, Puno’s voice echoes the sadness she felt as she remembers why she wanted to die.
“You think it’s the only way to end your pain,” Puno says.
Unable to speak with friends or family, most of whom Puno says simply did not know what to tell her, she withdrew into a deepening depression that left her feeling isolated and alone.
“It was hard for them to find the words to talk with me,” Puno says. “They didn’t want me to relive the grief and anger, and they were trying to be very careful about what they said.”
While relatively few adolescents deal with the extreme type of trauma that Puno experienced in coping with her parents’ deaths, a far larger number of college students confront the same intense feelings of loneliness and isolation that lead to similar thoughts of suicide.
Like Puno, these young men and women also face family and friends that do not know what to do or say, and sometimes, those most in distress do not get the help they need until it’s too late.
According to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide now ranks as the third leading cause of death among men and women aged 15 to 25. Among college students, suicide climbs to the number two spot, second only to accidental deaths as a measure of fatalities. But for every student that succeeds in taking their own life, an estimated 200 attempt and fail.
Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2000 that 815,000 people died as the result of suicide, a figure nearly two and a half times higher than the number of deaths caused by global conflicts and warfare.
Locally, according to the CDC, San Francisco has the highest suicide rate of all Bay Area communities, at 16.27 suicides per 100,000 deaths.
In SF State’s Student Counseling Center, Clinical Director Willie Mullins knows the grim statistics. While Mullins said that no SF State student has taken their life on campus in many years, he worries that too many students may be thinking about hurting themselves and not seeking professional assistance.
“Help is available,” said Mullins. “There are resources, both on campus and in the community.”
Mullins also said that an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 students die each year from suicide while in college.
“One is too many,” Mullins said.
According to most experts, including Mullins, it is a myth that you should not ask a friend or family member if they are thinking about suicide.
“It’s OK to ask, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’” said Mullins. “People, a lot of times, don’t pay attention. We’re so locked into our own worlds.”
Mullins and others agree that the warning signs of suicide include:
• A change in eating habits, either eating too much or too little
Statistically, suicide is a disproportionate killer, affecting men four times more than women and hitting some ethnic groups harder than others. Especially hard hit are Native Americans, particularly the Inuit of northern Canada, and citizens of countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. But anyone who is contemplating taking his or her own life needs to seek help immediately, regardless of gender or race.
Student Melanie Puno agrees that getting help, especially professional help, is the key to breaking the vicious spiral of pain and despair that can lead to suicide. While Puno said that it was thoughts of hurting her own family and friends that stopped her from taking her own life, she sees sharing pain with others as the only certain way to begin coping and avoid the types of thinking that can end in suicide.
“In dealing with any experience that is confusing or traumatic, it’s highly important to seek out friends, family or professional help,” Puno said. “They can just be there for you. If I’d dealt with this by myself, I wouldn’t be here.”
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