Tracking university suicides on campuses presents many challenges for schools
When Solomon Stewart, 24, talks about the day in May 2015 when he attempted suicide, he fiddles with a pair of homemade bracelets on his wrist. One says, “MARDKAYIN,” the other, “IMASTUN.”
The bracelets, which translate as “human” and “person” in Armenian, are reminders of Stewart’s battle with depression. He made them while hospitalized following his suicide attempt.
“Sometimes, you don’t feel like you deserve to be considered a person when you’re dealing with stuff like this,” he said.
Like many others, Stewart struggles with public dismissal of mental illness. When he speaks with his father, he always has to answer the same question: “Still doing that ‘mental health thing?’”
“We treat physical things like broken bones and the flu with the proper care they need, but with mental illness, it’s just a throwaway,” Stewart said.
Stories of depression are difficult to tell, possibly because they’re often questioned. Meanwhile, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans age 15 to 34, and universities can be a hotbed for mental disorders.
Stress, substance abuse, poor sleep and dietary habits can trigger dormant mental health issues. At UNC-Chapel Hill, 15 percent of students use Counseling and Psychological Services for general mental health care and treatment of anxiety disorders.
Stewart’s depression went undiagnosed until college, but the safety plan he drew up at CAPS prompted Stewart to hospitalize himself when, after binging on food and alcohol, he attempted to hang himself in his bedroom.
While appointments with Counseling and Psychological Services have swelled, some argue that students aren’t afforded a sufficient level of care. But treating mental illnesses isn’t clear cut. Medications aren’t one-size-fits-all and often come with a slew of side effects.
Stewart’s experience with CAPS was positive, but some, like former student Timothy Wyatt, 22, think the university at large isn’t doing enough to help.
The Burnsville native enrolled in college in relatively good mental health. But after helping friends struggling with substances and emotional disorders, he felt his mental wellness declining. Soon, he was going to CAPS for depression, struggling to put food in his mouth and get out of bed in the morning.
He said his CAPS experience wasn’t perfect, but change must come from the whole university – from the administration to the student body.
“Students have to have each other’s backs,” he said. “People don’t realize the importance of reaching out, of having groups of people you can go to and say, ‘Come on, let’s go get food, let’s hang out.’”
Kelsie Qua, 25, said it isn’t the school’s responsibility to manage students’ health. She does, however, have a problem with the way mental health services are presented.
Before she transferred to Chapel Hill, Qua, who suffers from anxiety and depression, called the office of Accessibility Resources & Service about managing her mental health.
After being put on hold then attempting to leave a message, she was told the office was understaffed. They said she should call back later.
“It’s hard to say, ‘This is something that affects me every single day, and I need help with it,’” Qua said. “And hearing someone say, ‘I have 20,000 other students to deal with,’ left a really bad taste in my mouth.”
Tiffany Bailey, director of Accessibility Resources & Service, said nearly 1,400 students receive accommodation from ARS. Over the last five years, she’s noticed an uptick in students with psychological and chronic medical conditions applying for aid.
In response to Qua, Bailey said her department avoids making a student’s needs feel unimportant. She also said ARS operated with only four full-time employees last summer, the department’s busiest season.
Bailey said the story doesn’t surprise her, but she hopes students give ARS some leeway.
“We always want to acknowledge, ‘Yes, we’re here, but this is the situation, can you give us a call back?’” she said. “Obviously, our intent was not to negatively impact the student.”
CAPS has been under pressure, too. Facing budget cuts, psychiatrist and director Allen O’Barr said his office focuses on affording suicidal students same-day care.
In a Daily Tar Heel interview in January, O’Barr said suicides can’t necessarily be stopped. While his department’s preventive efforts doubtlessly help, there’s not always a clear, long-term solution to the daily battle of depression.
“Periodically a suicide occurs and we try to look at that as closely as we can to try to determine, ‘Is there anything here that could have been different?’” O’Barr said.
The ideal response to depression is unclear, but when those suffering from mental illness describe their trauma, their pain is undeniably vivid.
“It’s like being caught in a river,” Stewart said. “Your arms and body want nothing more to just let go, but you know that you can’t, or it will be your doom.”