A Cry for Help:

Suicide Happens--Even at Harvard. But for the depressed or suicidal, there's help to be found.

The statistics come down hard: an average of one person every 17.3 minutes commits suicide in America. Suicide is more common than homicide. Suicide claims 13 percent of all deaths in the 15 to 24 age group, second only to car accidents.

According to a 1983 Newsweek poll, one out of eight college students has seriously contemplated killing herself or himself as a way of dealing with stress, burnout, depression or anxiety.

At Harvard, approximately 20 students have taken their own lives in the last two decades. The most recent confirmed case was in 1990, when a graduate student committed suicide.

After a cluster of suicides at Harvard in the 1970s, the number has varied from none to two each year, Director of Mental Health Services Randolph Catlin says.

Most Harvard students who have committed suicide in the recent past did so by overdosing on pills, says Douglas H. Powell, a psychologist at University Health Services (UHS). These students also tended to leave notes, he says.

One student, however, left life tumbling from the Mather House high rise during reading period. Another jumped from a window in Stillman Infirmary. Another hung himself in a dorm stairwell over Christmas break.

Harvard matches other Ivies in suicide rates over the past decade, according to the schools' mental health departments. Cornell University averages about one suicide a year. Yale University averages about one every two years. Princeton University's slate is clear of suicides over the past couple of years. Brown University had four students take their own lives in the last two years.

"An important point to make about statistics is that the story is not complete," says Margaret O'Neil, who for eight years has served as director of the Boston Samaritans, a 24-hour suicide prevention center located on Boylston St. O'Neil says student deaths, no matter how suspect, are usually not earmarked as suicides unless there is a note. Moreover, Powell estimates that for every completed suicide there are anywhere between 20 and 100 attempts, many of them unreported.

Last year, Mental Health Services admitted just under 600 undergraduates--9 percent of the College; Room 13, Harvard's all-purpose peer counseling and outreach service, received about 1300 calls and drop-ins; and the Bureau of Study Counsel counseled about 700 students.

Not all, of course, were suicidal or clinically depressed. "Most students who come in have problems that are well short of the typical psychiatric diagnosis," Powell says. Mitchell C. Bailin '92, co-director of Room 13, says some callers are suicidal, but most are not. "There's a whole range of people who feel down in the dumps, who feel the blues," Bailin says.

"I think almost everybody at Harvard goes through periods where they feel depressed," Bailin adds.

Of the students who seek help at Mental Health Services, women outnumber men, two to one. At the Bureau of Study Council, the ratio is three to two. And over the years slightly more women than men have used Room 13. Catlin attributes the discrepancy to differences in the way men and women tend to address personal problems.

"Women are usually more in touch with their feelings, more willing to talk, and more concerned about issues of relationships," Catlin says. "It's usually more difficult for men to come and talk about their problems."

O'Neil agreed, saying, "It's more acceptable for a woman to ask for help than a man."

According to the 1990 National Center for Health Statistics report, women attempt suicide three times more often than men, whereas men complete four times more suicides than women, often more violently.