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Students at risk: community colleges struggle with growing cries for help.

Tragedy sometimes provides the strongest impetus for prodding officials to confront a growing crisis. For community colleges, the death by suicide of Raya Belcheva could be one of those moments.

The 22-year-old nursing student at California's Glendale Community College died in November 2005, just weeks before she would have completed her final semester and graduated, according to the school's student newspaper. She was one of two students enrolled in the two-year college's nursing program to take her own life within seven months, the newspaper said.

The tragic, unexpected deaths have focused new attention on a troubling issue: every year, about 1,100 college students take their own life, and many more make an attempt.

And the problem appears to be growing. National studies say college students increasingly are afflicted with mental illness and reporting suicidal feelings. Campus counselors are struggling to keep up with growing demands for help.

Student suicides at prestigious universities such as MIT and Harvard have commanded most of media attention, but the deaths at Glendale Community College underscore that two-year community colleges are not immune from the trend.

Yet there is very little data available concerning suicides at community colleges, said Joanna Locke, a program director with The Jed Foundation. The non-profit foundation works with colleges across the country to develop suicide prevention programs.

"We really need better data," she said. "We don't have data suggesting a trend line for community college students. It's a problem."

According to mental health professionals, numerous factors are feeding the trend at institutions of higher learning. Students are confronted with a list of stress factors as they enter college, having to navigate through major life changes. Longtime friends and family are gone, replaced by the need to build new relationships amid the pressure of meeting new academic standards.

In addition, illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders often manifest themselves for the first time among the college age group, mental health studies show. Also, the easy access to alcohol and drugs can fuel suicidal impulses.

The convergence of those factors has contributed to some sobering statistics.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, suicide ranks as the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24, eclipsed only by accidents and homicides. By comparison, suicide ranks as the 11th leading cause of death among all Americans each year.

While suicides account for 1.3 percent of American deaths each year, they are to blame for almost 12 percent of deaths among 15 to 24 year olds.

In 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, 31,484 people died by suicide. Of that number, 3,988 were committed by those aged between 15 and 24.

In the past 60 years, the suicide rate has quadrupled for males 15 to 24 years and doubled for girls in the same age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Those statistics present difficult challenges to community college administrators, whose students differ from those enrolled at a four-year college. Nationwide, community colleges enroll more than 12 million students- about half the postsecondary population

A 2004 study commissioned by the federal Department of Health and Human Services noted that community colleges generally have fewer resources to meet the mental health needs of their students than do four-year colleges. Consequently, community colleges must rely heavily on community mental health services, which vary widely across regions, the study said.

In addition, community colleges are more likely to serve commuter students, many of whom have families or jobs and study part-time. Students coping with such demands are harder to reach than those who live on campus, the study said.

"Commuter schools are often more like workplaces than college campuses, and students may appear on campus only for classes and use the library, and are thus difficult to reach with school-based programming," the study said.

The fact that community college students tend to be older presents another challenge. About 34 percent of community college students are over age 21, and most hold full-time jobs in addition to pursuing their academic goals, according to statistics compiled by the American Association of Community Colleges.

A landmark study of Big Ten schools found that students 25 and over have a significantly higher risk of suicide than younger students.

Older students can be even harder to reach through campus-based resources, the DHS study found. They are more apt to be commuters instead of living on campus. Those who have left the workforce to return to school confront new anxieties. They could have families or find academics more demanding than expected. Many have made personal or financial sacrifices to return to school, contributing to suicidal behaviors.

Medical factors are also involved.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has found that most young people who commit suicide are afflicted with a pre-existing mental illness, usually depression. When combined with substance abuse, anxiety or hopelessness, depression can make for a potentially deadly cocktail.

More than 90 percent of youths who die by suicide have at least one psychiatric illness at the time of their death. In about half of those cases, the illness was present, though undiagnosed, for two or more years.

But those statistics are not necessarily cause for despair because many of the psychiatric conditions which lead to suicide can be treated. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 80 percent of depressed patients are successfully treated. The institute found, however, that two of every three college students who are depressed never seek help.

Colleges across the country have begun devising programs aimed at suicide prevention, Locke said. The Jed Foundation has developed a list of protocols campuses can use in devising and managing suicide prevention programs.

"There certainly is a growing awareness," Locke said. "For a long time, the programs were limited to mental health professionals and counselors on campus. But there is now a push for a campus-wide approach. Most colleges now provide all their students information about counseling during orientation. It is a much more visible topic, and that's a good thing."

Community colleges, while offering traditional academic counseling services, have been slower to develop their own suicide prevention programs. According to the National Academic Advising Association, counseling at community colleges is more likely to resemble high school guidance counseling.

The nature of the student populations at community colleges--predominantly first generation college students who are highly diverse in ethnicity, ability and socioeconomic background- means many counselors must focus on the basics. Mental health services often fall by the wayside.

In 2005, when the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration handed out $1.5 million in grants for mental health services on college campuses, just two of the 22 grants went to community colleges.

One went to Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore. The college applied for the grant after two of its students died by suicide in the 2003-2004 school years. The $73,000 federal grant is being used to strengthen community networks and its own infrastructure to provide better suicide-prevention services.

"This grant provides an opportunity for Blue Mountain Community College to deal more effectively at the local level with this international health crisis," said college president John H. Turner. "Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students in the U.S. and it is preventable. Our region of eastern Oregon has the highest suicide rates in the state and higher than the national average. Grant funds will help pay for the training of our staff, students and community partners to recognize the warning signs, reduce the stigma and prevent future suicides."

Wanda Cliflon-Faber is administering the grant for the college, located in eastern Oregon. She said the money will help the college meet an expanding need.

"We don't have the resources that a lot of institutions have," she said. "We don't have a counseling center, so we are dependent on the community. The grant is a way to weave ourselves in and among the resources that already exist. The goal is to have ourselves permanently embedded in the care-giving community."

The college has launched suicide-awareness training for all its faculty members, and suicide awareness is being woven into the college's curriculum, she said. Blue Mountain also is trying to improve communication with its students, all of whom are commuters, through mass emails and public service announcements that play at campus gathering spots. The rural community college has a service area of about 18,000 square miles.

"We're taking a broad-based approach. It is a community-wide effort. Suicide prevention is everyone's business. Everyone needs to be aware of the signs and know the right questions to ask," Clifton-Faber said.

John Dever, executive vice-president of Northern Virginia Community College in suburban Washington, D.C., said NVCC's six campuses are likewise trying to tap community resources in providing mental health services for students.

"We recognize that we need to be prepared to assist students who come to us," she said. "We have to deal with the whole person. But we won't have the range and intensity of services or the range of four-year colleges. It's a matter of resources. Our students are also members of the community, so we have to be able to make them aware of the resources the community has available."

This year, the federal investment in funding suicide prevention programs on college campuses is slated to climb to $5 million, giving more schools of all types the opportunity to develop programs aimed at suicide prevention.
Feeling Blue

Colleges reporting students with symptoms of
depression or thoughts of suicide.

 2-year 4-year

* Ever diagnosed with depression 17.7% 12.9%
* Diagnosed with depression in the last 12 months 51.4% 44.2%
* Within the last 12 months, felt so depressed it 17.2% 11%
was difficult to function seven of more times
* Within the last 12 months, seriously considered 2.7% 1.5%
suicide seven or more times
* Within the last 12 months, attempted suicide one 3.4% 1.4%
or more times

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Notes: The national college health assessment Fall 2003 Reference Group
Database consists of 21 schools and 11,900 survey responses from
college and university students. There are four two-year schools with
1,618 surveys. There are 17 four-year schools with 10,372 surveys.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Autumn Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Bradley, Paul
Publication:Community College Week
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Jul 31, 2006
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