When I arrived at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia last August, it felt like a paradise. I'd never visited the States, so it was strange to be greeted by Union Jacks and actors with questionable English accents in the colonial part of town, but they only added to its quaintness. I didn't know then, though, that behind Williamsburg's charm was a darker reality – that it houses a university with a crippling suicide problem.
William & Mary was recently described as a "top college" by Forbes and has a reputation for academic rigour and exceptionally high standards; two-thirds of all applicants get rejected. If colonial Williamsburg is the town's heart, the university is its brain. Weirdly, my first week at the college was characterised by compulsory child's games and scaremongering talks about the unimaginable dangers of drugs and alcohol. But despite this, the people there were hugely welcoming and friendly. I immediately felt part of a thriving community.
Within days, however, I noticed a sudden change in atmosphere – a student had taken his own life on campus, leaving the community muted and shaken. A memorial service was arranged and, slowly, the university drifted back to normality. As I knew very little about the place at the time, I considered this death a tragic anomaly; a singular black mark on this idyllic college community.
But I soon learned that this was by no means a lone case. Since my first week at the college, a total of four students have committed suicide, and in the past five years alone nine have taken their own lives. What makes these statistics even more shocking is the small size of the university – just over 8,000 students are currently enrolled. Tragedies such as these are now so frequent that Noa Nir, a 2013 graduate, recently told The Washington Post: "I still feel like I'm holding my breath every day, waiting for the next death."
The series of deaths at William & Mary is unusual; indeed, the university has tactlessly been labelled a "suicide school" by some. However, when they are examined in context, the tragedies at this small and close-knit school begin to fit into a wider narrative – one that shows that instances of student suicides are far from anomalies.
In the past 50 years, suicide rates among young Americans have increased by 200 percent. But the issue isn't solely an American one; a similar trend can be observed across the UK. The number of students who took their own lives in England and Wales is still relatively low, but it rose by 50 percent between 2007 and 2011 – from 75 to 112 – despite the number of students as a whole rising by only 14 percent. Between 2008 and 2009, 13 student suicides were recorded at Warwick University alone.
Although we can't speculate or know for certain the reasons behind individual cases of suicide, it's worth noting that there has been an increased number of stressed students seeking help. In recent weeks it was reported that counselling services in the UK are facing an annual rise in demand of about 10 percent. Mental health problems on campus are also rising rapidly, from around 8,000 to 18,000 in the four years before 2012-13.
However, while we can measure the number of people using services, it's harder to know if this increase in numbers equates to an increase in mental health disorders, or whether it's simply easier for students to access the help they need.
"In recent years we have seen an increase each year in the number of students accessing counselling," says Robert Barnsley, who works for the counselling service at the University of Sheffield as a Mental Health Support Coordinator. "This could be as a result of an increase in prevalence, or it could be simply that students feel more open to accessing such services."
Rosanna Hardwick is a mental health campaigner and senior consultant at the charity Student Minds. She offers a variety of reasons why students are more likely to suffer from mental health problems. "Lack of sleep, poor diet, work pressures, lack of exercise and alcohol consumption are all risk factors for developing mental health difficulties," she says. "In addition, the years spent at university coincide with the peak age of onset for a range of mental health difficulties, with 75 percent of all mental health difficulties developing by the mid-20s."
Indeed, Barnsley explains that "low mood and symptoms of depression, anxiety and difficulties in relationships" are the most common reasons people visit him.
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Student Minds believes that "peer intervention can change the state of student mental health", and thinks this is key in preventing mental health issues from reaching crisis point. Hardwick cites their national "Look After Your Mate" campaign, which encourages informal peer support on university campuses. "Students are most likely to speak to friends when they are experiencing difficulties," she says adding: "Good social networks and peer contacts have a protective influence against mental health difficulties. In a recent study, support from family and friends was the most often cited reason for why students decided to remain in higher education."
It is clear, then, that support from friends is crucial.
"The pressures that students face are as great now as they have ever been," says Barnsley. "Whether that's about the transition from family home to independent living, or family responsibilities for older students, or the difficulties faced by international students in either being so far from home and loved ones, or the very real concerns of those from countries where there's ongoing conflict."
These are, of course, all legitimate reasons for anxiety, and counsellors are well-equipped to try to absolve them. But when thoughts of suicide enter the equation, is there still a place for counselling? Surprisingly, Robert thinks not.
"When people are feeling suicidal, starting counselling may not be the right thing for them," he says. "Counselling can leave people feeling worse in the short term. It can stir up more difficult emotions and can increase risk. Counselling that works on a model of weekly or fortnightly appointments isn't able to meet those urgent needs."
It seems, then, that university counselling isn't designed for those at rock-bottom and, in fact, can worsen the situation for those who are suffering with suicidal thoughts.
Jacob* is a student who suffers from depression, which resurged after he arrived at university. He experienced the aforementioned flaws in university counselling when he visited, citing suicidal thoughts. "I filled out an online form in advance and ticked a box to confirm I'd been having suicidal thoughts," he says, explaining that he then went to an appointment with a counsellor and "had several unproductive sessions".
"Initially, I was prescribed a book on depression," he says. "When you have relapsed, the last thing you need is to be told what depression is, because, naturally, you know better than anyone […] They never even discussed my suicidal thoughts. The form was just a filtration system. Suicide is unspoken of in university counselling, as well as outside of it, because the moment you mention it they will ship you out."
Jacob's experience culminated with a session in which his counsellor "told me to go to my doctor and ask to be prescribed Valium". When he told his doctor this, she responded furiously, saying, "That would leave you in rehab by the time you're 30." He sums up his counselling experience as "bureaucratic at best and, at worst, 'We don't know what to do with you at all.' I've never met anyone who has come away from that feeling like they've been offered any counsel."
It's a bleak picture indeed and, while on-campus counselling is important, it would seem it's not the answer to dealing with a student suicide problem.
So what are the solutions? Well, there are no easy answers, and finding them is not helped by the fact the subject is taboo both on campus and behind the closed doors of counselling centres. At present, it seems like there is very little in place to help those at their lowest ebb, and that desperately needs to change.
* Names have been changed
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