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Suicide casts light on trends

By Amy Agronis on February 22, 2002 in University News

The recent ruling by law enforcement officials that Andrew Wieman had committed suicide shocked many who knew him. To friends, Andrew seemed like a successful, well-rounded student who enjoyed goofing off with his fraternity brothers and spending time with his family.

But Andrew had his troubles, as do many college students. Investigators have determined that, in the weeks before his January 2001 death, his friends and family members had noted that Andrew was not the same happy-go-lucky person as usual. Many of his friends, however, also said that they hadn't seen any outward changes in Wieman.

That no one knew Andrew was contemplating suicide is not unusual, said UC Davis Counseling Center Director Emil Rodolfa.

"It happens sometimes that the signs just aren't there," Rodolfa said. After a student has decided to kill himself or herself "he or she may look more relieved, calmer or more relaxed. They've made their plan, and that plan leaves them some sort of control."

Campuses across the United States each year grapple with student suicides. And all face the dilemma of trying to identify the warning signs before they turn tragic.

The 2000-2001 International Association of Counseling Services survey - in which UC Davis participated - noted that 30 percent of campuses out of 250 reviewed had at least one suicide among their students.

At a time when many students seem on the surface to be having the time of their lives, they also face great turmoil. "There are developmental problems, the transitions for this age group, the questioning of who they are and who they are going to be. (These) all influence how they feel about themselves," Rodolfa said.

And though mental health professionals like those at the Counseling Center are better trained than ever to recognize the warning signs, college suicide rates have not decreased over the years.

At UC Davis, 29 enrolled students have committed suicide over the past 20 years, with never more than three students killing themselves in a single year, Rodolfa said. Additionally, the center has hospitalized about 12 to 15 suicidal students a year. "You've got a constant age population dealing with similar problems over the years," Rodolfa said.

Men are especially vulnerable to suicide. Widespread statistical data have found that men are three times as likely to commit suicide as women are.

Society teaches men to suppress their feelings, Rodolfa said. At UC Davis, male students may have been taught these same lessons. Only 30 percent of the UC Davis Counseling Center's clients are men.

The center conducts workshops across campus letting students know of its services, which include sessions with peer counselors. They should be especially effective at reaching students, but again, the vast majority of counselors are women, he said.

To reach out to some of the men Wieman knew best, Rodolfa met with the student's Kappa Sigma brothers recently.

"I said they need to take care of themselves, and that I hoped they would make the Counseling Center known to their members," Rodolfa said. "We're a confidential service, and we cost nothing."

The Counseling Center encourages faculty members who see signs of trouble in their students to reach out as well.

When they arrive on campus, all new faculty members receive a resource guide from the center describing signs of depression and other mental health issues students may be battling. The guide teaches faculty members how to talk with students, refer them to the Counseling Center or seek other types of help if necessary.

Faculty members may be increasingly seeing the importance of personally connecting with students. This year the center gave its first training on identifying suicidal tendencies in students to a group of teaching assistants, at the urging of a professor working with the TA's, Rodolfa said.

He hopes to receive funding from Student Affairs to provide training for all employees who work with students to recognize signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.

Rodolfa hopes that, with or without formal training, all employees understand that the college years are full of conflicts for students - conflicts that they may not have the resources to handle.

"I hope (employees) will be good community members and check on these students and ask how they are doing," Rodolfa said. "We need to somehow make it OK to ask someone something personal. That's pretty important."