Attempted Suicide Numbers Show No Marked Change

Four students attempted suicide in "overt" attempts last year

Police responded to four reports of attempted suicides by Harvard students—two involving undergraduates and two involving graduate students—during the 2004-2005 academic school year, according to numbers released by the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) last week.

The data, which spans from Sept. 2004 to Aug. 2005, does not represent a significant change from previous years for which figures are available. During the 2003-2004 academic school year, there were five reported attempted suicides; during the previous year, there were three.

According to HUPD Spokesman Steven G. Catalano, attempted suicide is defined as an "overt attempt to harm themselves (ingested pills, cut their wrists, etc.)."

He added that HUPD would not comment further on the issue in order to stay consistent with past practices.

The data was released by HUPD as part of an arrangement between HUPD and The Crimson that arose out of a 2003 committee on privacy headed by University Vice President and General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83. Since 2003, as part of the agreement, HUPD has released the number of attempted suicides on campus reported to police for the previous academic year every October.

"I think one suicide attempt is too many," said Dr. Paul J. Barreira, Director of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling at University Health Services (UHS). "Schools don’t routinely report on the number of suicides, and it’s hard to interpret what four means. But the important thing is that the fact that a student knows enough to call the Harvard University Police for help is a good thing."

In February 2004, Anthony Fonseca ’04-’05 was found dead in his room in Winthrop House in an apparent suicide, the last such incident to occur on campus. Since January 1995, at least 15 Harvard undergraduates have committed suicide.

Barreira said that a statistic might not fully capture the status of mental health at Harvard.

"To me, the things that I would like to know are how many students feel desperate and think about doing something to hurt themselves, and do they know where to get help," he said. "And that number is greater than four."

Andrew L. Kalloch ’06, co-chair of the Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Group (MHAAG), said that the College has been successful in its attempts at improving the mental health of students over the last several years.

"Harvard has made huge strides in mental health care over the past five years—and this not only means improving services through...UHS and other avenues, but also by making social life a priority on campus, which, ideally, helps reduce stress and improve the students’ quality of life," he wrote in an e-mail.

Dr. Richard Kadison, Chief of Mental Health Services at UHS, wrote in an e-mail that he thinks that "the stress levels are very high at Harvard and around the country."

"One of our biggest challenges is to reduce stigma, so students recognize how common the problems are, that there is nothing to be ashamed about, and that care is available and works," he said. "One thing that has helped a lot are student groups, such as MHAAG, that have helped raise awareness. Students listen to other students much more easily than health professionals."

—Staff writer Reed B. Rayman can be reached at rrayman@fas.harvard.edu.