College stresses are of little significance in the causes of suicide, Dr. Dana Farnsworth, director of the University Health Senvices, has said in a report to the American College of Physicians in Philadelphia.
Most serious psychiatric disorders in students have their origins in conditions at home, he said. In families where parents "get along well with each other," students are most likely to be emotionally healthy.
Eleven per cent of the students at Harvard see psychiatrists each year. Of the 15,000 students in the University, about 30 are diagnosed annually as psychotic.
Describing the psychiatric services at Harvard, Farnsworth said, "we feel that giving reasonable psychiatric aid to about 10 per cent of the student body and a moderate amount of long-term therapy to those who could not obtain it elsewhere is about enough."
Farnsworth maintained that college psychiatrists are not concerned with changing students' political values, but with "actions that are designed to bring about social change but instead result in complete self-defeat and frustration are a proper subject for the psychiatrist's concern when such a student consults him."
It is important for college psychiatrists to "win the confidence" of students in order to help them, Farnsworth said. He added that "college psychiatrists maintain the same practices regarding privacy and confidentiality as do their colleagues in private practice." and termed the occasional breaches "undesirable."
Suicide is the second most frequent cause of death among college students, accidents being first. There is no reliable data supporting the contention that the rate is increasing, Farnsworth said.
According to a study sponsored by the National Association for Mental Health, the rate of student suicide in 1960 was 5 per 100,000 students and in 1968 was 7.2 per 100,000.
"Students who commit suicide are usually socially isolated or estranged, frequently for long periods of time before suicide." he continued, "and although women make more attempts, men complete the suicidal act oftener."
Students are now directing hostility and suspicion toward all institutions and older values, he said, suggesting that "the causes lie both within and without our institutions of higher learning."
Commenting on the current assumption that students' dissent is a symptom of a decline in their mental health, Farnsworth said, "It might be argued convincingly that the nature of their dissatisfaction connotes a higher than usual level of mental health, particularly in the realm of concern for others."