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FALLING THROUGH THE SAFETY NET

Suicide at Harvard

By Sandhya R. Rao

Even though Laura suspected her friend, Chris, was suicidal, she felt helpless and unsure of what to do as Chris adopted erratic sleeping and eating habits, lost interest in personal belongings and stopped caring about hygeine.

Laura sought advice from a Harvard official, whom she wishes not to name, but found the advice incomplete. After the meeting, she says, her questions about how to deal with the situation were left unanswered.

Chris eventually attempted suicide.

"I had difficulty deciding whether [Chris'] behavior signified short-term problems or a serious problem that indicated suicidal tendencies," Laura says. "It's hard to know where to draw the line and interfere."

Since 1991, two Harvard students have committed suicide and 15 attempted suicides have been reported, according Lieutenant Lawrence M. Murphy of the Harvard University Police Department. This fall alone, at least two undergraduates, a senior from Cabot House and a junior from Lowell House, attempted suicide.

Chief of Mental Health Services at University Health Services (UHS) Dr. Randolph Catlin says the most common causes of suicide among college students are doubts about relationships and fear of failure in the "real world."

And Harvard's competitive, and occasionally impersonal atmosphere can often exacerbate students' depression, according to Mark E. Warner '94, who heads the peer counseling group Room 13.

Warner and Catlin say it is often up to the people closest to the suicidal student--including friends and house tutors--to intervene and initiate discussion about the problem. But some House tutors do not have enough interaction with students to detect depression, Warner and Catlin say.

Some students are even reluctant to approach tutors, says Catlin, because they fear being labelled as "students with problems."

Catlin and Warner say tutors need to make more of an effort to get to know students.

"I think it is true that a great many house tutors don't put themselves out to get involved with students. [Students] may not feel that they have that close of a relationship with tutors," Catlin says.

In fact, fewer first-years attempt suicide because close relationships between students and proctors catch depression in its early stages, he adds.

"We don't get many freshman cases," he says. "I think an awful lot of problems have been dealt with at [the proctor] level."

Laura says part of the problem in Chris' situation was the impersonality of the house in which Chris lives.

"The tutors don't know you," Laura says. "It's harder to go to somebody for help whom you don't know than it is to go to somebody you do know."

And Warner says he does not think tutors care about students' "mental well-being."

Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III says there are no College guidelines specifying the amount of time tutors must spend with students.

The Role of House Tutors

Several tutors, including Cabot House Senior Tutor Julian P. Chang '86, say they play active roles in students' lives.

"In Cabot House, the tutors have a relationship where the tutors do talk to students about all kinds of things, either to throw ideas off them or to check up on them," Chang says.

Tutors are well-trained to deal with suicidal students, Mather House Senior Tutor Mary Peckham says. This fall, she says, new senior tutors met with Catlin to discuss depression and other mental health issues.

"I think that each house has enough experienced people within its ranks [to deal with suicidal students]," Epps says.

Peckham thinks tutors handle student problems well, especially since tutors come from a variety of different backgrounds and are thus able to talk to a wide range of students.

"Sometimes students will come to me to talk about feelings of [being] depressed," says Peckham.

Finding Help

Valerie A. Gordon '94, whose boyfriend, James P. Houghton '94, committed suicide in September 1992, says her senior tutor in Lowell House--Alexandra L. Barcus--was "very helpful" after Houghton's suicide.

Barcus offered Gordon, who lived off-campus, a room in Lowell House and help.

Houghton, an English and Fine Arts concentrator and member of the Fly Club, was found fatally shot in the courtyard of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on September 20, 1992. He committed suicide because he was tormented by obsessive feelings and questions about life he felt he could not answer, says Gordon.

But William, a Harvard sophomore who says he survived more than one suicide attempt, now thinks that almost no problems--including obsessions and doubts about life--merit attempting suicide.

Shortly before arriving at Harvard, William almost shot himself. Before this, he attempted suicide by overdosing on drugs.

"I felt like I had fucked myself over to the point where I couldn't get back. [I thought there was] nothing anyone could do; I had caused myself and others too much grief. I wanted the pain to stop, because drugs weren't helping me anymore," he says.

William was recovering from acute depression and a drug addiction when he came to Harvard.

He sought help at UHS and was pleased with the counseling he received from a therapist at UHS's mental health services.

"I never thought of UHS as a long-term option, but in an acute situation, it was really helpful," he says. "[UHS] moved fairly quickly to get me in to see them and the doctor I saw was very concerned."

Taking Action

"Right when I was about to pull the trigger, I stepped back and thought about how messy my room would get [if I went through with it]," William says. "That's the effect intervention would have."

William, who was saved by a fleeting thought, says students should approach friends who are depressed or suicidal.

"Never be afraid to step in and say you're worried," says William. "What's the worst thing they could say? And you might save their life."

Laura also advises students who have potentially suicidal friends to avoid leaving them alone.

"Try to be with them as much as possible....keep them busy," she says.

William warns that even though intervening is important, friends must think carefully before approaching someone whom they think is suicidal.

"If you say something, you're making a commitment," he says. An intervention must be wholehearted and should include a discussion of other options, he says.

Depressed students, he adds, should also make an effort to reach out before resorting to suicide.

"Depression can make you all alone--don't let it take you away," William says. "If you're thinking no one cares, I know how that feels, but that's bullshit. People do care."

A Stressful Atmosphere

"It doesn't surprise me that there are a lot of suicide attempts here," William says. "People are so wrapped up in their own little world [that they] don't take time to see what's going on with other people. We're anxious to look the other way."

William says that many Harvard students, including himself, are perfectionists who have trouble forgiving themselves for their mistakes.

Though the suicide rate at Harvard is less than the national average for college-aged people, Catlin and Warner say competition and a pressure to succeed exacerbate depression for Harvard students.

"Harvard is a very big stress case," Warner says.

Catlin says most suicidal students whom he counsels are seniors who "feel increasingly obligated to use their education in a constructive way."

The three main causes of suicide attempts are feelings of being trapped in a seemingly unresolvable situation, the loss of a loved one and a mental disturbance, Catlin wrote in a December 10 guest commentary in The Crimson.

He also wrote that while some who attempt suicide genuinely wish to die, others do so to gain attention from people who can help.

Laura says that although Chris' suicide attempt was unfortunate, at least the act finally got the attention of Chris' family.

"Everyone gets depressed," says Laura. "Some people deal with it differently. It doesn't mean you're crazy, but unless your family acknowledges the problem, things can get bad."

The Hardest Times

The most common times of the year for Harvard students to attempt suicide, according to Epps, are the beginning of winter and the beginning of spring.

In fact, college students nationally attempt suicide most frequently in November and December, according to a 1988 study on college student suicides in the United States conducted by Al-lan J. Schwartz and Clifford B. Reifler of the University of Rochester.

"Some students may be concerned about going home into family situations that make them feel overwhelmed," Catlin told The Crimson in December. "Often, suicide seems like a way to escape."

But some suicidal students do not try to kill themselves at the height of their depression. Some, like William, attempt suicide when they have begun to recover.

"When things start to turn around, you're at the highest risk," William says. "Things are still bad [then], but you can motivate. If you think someone is seriously depressed, you need to be attuned to [his or her] behavior even when things start to look up."

The Warning Signs

Catlin says giving away possessions and changing sleeping and eating habits may be signs of depression.

"Usually [depressed students] find they don't have an appetite," Catlin says. "They have sleeping disturbances--they have difficulty going to sleep or they wake up very early."

William says that before attempting suicide he began to lose interest in life, sleep excessively and ignore schoolwork.

House tutors become concerned about a student when he or she disappears from house activities, exhibits erratic sleeping habits and appears lethargic, says Chang.

Recovery

Since the majority of suicide attempts at Harvard are unsuccessful, a key issue for the University to face is how to help students recover.

"The response is an individual one, using the agencies at the College, including [UHS] and the Bureau of Study Counsel," Epps said in December.

And most students who attempt suicide do rebound, Catlin says.

"Once they do get a handle on [their life], they do fully recover. They realize that one can survive what seems like a terrible loss or catastrophe," Catlin says. "Depression is a very treatable disorder."

William says suicidal students can bounce back, as long as they make an effort to do so. For him, this involved quitting drugs and receiving psychotherapy.

"It does get better. It got better for me," he says. "It's not easy, it could be the hardest thing you ever go through, but it does get better. Don't let it beat you. There are very few things in this world that are worth it."

John M. Wagley contributed to the reporting of this article.

*At their request, some students have been given pseudonyms to protect their identites. These students are identified by a first name only.

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