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Thursday February 2nd

Lack of suicide statistics at universities raises questions of prevention, response

Photo courtesy of UNC CAPS.
Buy Photos Photo courtesy of UNC CAPS.

A recent study found nearly half of the 100 largest public universities — including UNC-Chapel Hill — do not keep statistics on campus suicides.

Though UNC Counseling and Psychological Services records the number of suicides by students who have used their services, this number is not a full representation of all suicides.

The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

Randy Young, UNC Public Safety's media relations manager, said in an email statement University police does not specifically track suicides and suicide attempts. He said the University releases an annual Campus Security Report as required by the federal Clery Act.

"A suicide is not a crime and therefore is not a statistic that is disclosed as part of the Campus Security Report,” Young said.

Danielle Oakley, director of CAPS at Duke University, said collecting information on suicides is not a simple process. Parents withdrawing students from school without a given reason, city police not sharing information with the university and cultural practices can all complicate a potential statistic.

“Reporting what we do know will often be inaccurate as we would miss some, especially in large institutions,” she said. “There is also some controversy about reporting numbers. Based on the rate of seven deaths per 100,000 students, the number will be small, and some may think that resources are not necessary.”

Allen O’Barr, a psychiatrist and director of UNC CAPS, said there are many challenges involved in preventing campus suicides, and keeping statistics is just one of them.

“The thing about it is you can’t really prevent suicide,” he said. “All you can do is do your best to get to people and to educate them and to help them, but you can’t prevent suicides.”

O’Barr said CAPS is focusing most of its limited resources on seeing students on a same-day basis. This also includes 24-hour service through UNC Hospitals and links to suicide hotlines for emergencies.

“Is that a perfect service? No, it’s not,” he said. “But our idea is that anyone who is in distress can come in and see us.”

O’Barr said UNC will set up a task force in the spring that includes faculty, staff and students to analyze mental health on campus and make recommendations for the future.

Response to suicides, called suicide postvention, has been addressed by a number of universities and organizations.

Appalachian State University’s student death protocol details its guidelines for responding to suicide, which include avoiding glamorization of suicides and sensational language, as well as proactive community outreach.

“In the case of a suicide, it is a natural impulse for survivors to want a simple reason as to why a suicide happened and this might involve blaming someone close to the deceased," the protocol explains. "Interventions should involve an explanation of the complexity of suicide.”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center published a joint report, titled "After a Suicide," that focuses on proper university responses to suicide.

“Schools should strive to treat all student deaths in the same way," the report says. "Having one approach for a student who dies of cancer (for example) and another for a student who dies by suicide reinforces the unfortunate stigma that still surrounds suicide and may be deeply and unfairly painful to the deceased student’s family and close friends.”

"After a Suicide" defines contagion as a process in which one suicide contributes to another. The report explains how mishandling response to suicides can lead to contagion.

UNC's student body spread rumors following the reported suicide in Hinton James Residence Hall in December 2017. According to a report made by the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance, universities must prevent rumors.

“It is important that the death be addressed openly and directly. After a suicide, once the basic facts are known, any attempt to delay informing students will only encourage rumors,” the report says.

O’Barr said suicide prevention is a responsibility that belongs to more than just CAPS and University administration.

“Preventing suicide is something that’s on the back of everyone at the University,” he said.

To adequately combine both treatment and outreach, O’Barr said more funding would be necessary.

Oakley said the most important issue is a focus on suicide prevention.

“The reality is that even one death by suicide is too many,” she said. “Prevention efforts are a staple in college counseling centers.”


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