Mark My Words: On America's Campuses, Skeletons in the Closet

As the deadline to accept college admission offers approaches, universities around the country will step up their last minute efforts by bringing out one of their favorite tools - statistics. Be it how happy their student bodies are, how far away the nearest mountain and/or beach is, or how many Nobel laureates are teaching introductory classes, universities love to tout statistics and paint the rosiest picture possible for potential students.

However, there is one statistic that always manages to go unmentioned. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students. It is the second leading cause of death among graduate school aged populations.

Consequently, the issue of mental health services has become increasingly subject to debate on college campuses over the past couple of years. According to a 2007 study done by the American College Health Association, approximately 16 percent of college students nationwide have been diagnosed with clinical depression, and another 15 percent would qualify as clinically depressed if they were evaluated. Over nine percent of surveyed students nationwide said that they had seriously considered suicide during their college careers. A more recent study puts that number has high as 50 percent with 47 percent of undergraduates and 43 percent of graduate students seriously considering suicide on at least three occasions.

Yet, suicide and other severe mental health issues remain a taboo topic at many universities. Studies show that barely a quarter of students know about the existence of mental health services. Suicides are kept under wraps. Universities go to great length to prevent the campus at large from hearing about anything that may shine a bad light on a stressful campus environment. Mental health statistics are scarce and difficult to access at best, and university officials sometimes refuse to divulge mental health information by citing privacy concerns and confidentiality.

But why are numbers without identifying characteristics kept from the public?

Is it not in our interest as young adults to know the mental health situation on our potential future campuses? Mental health statistics, ranging from the number of forced hospitalizations to attempted and successful suicides, are just as important for a prospective student as the quality of athletic facilities or the professor to student ratio. This is the loss of human life and sanity we are talking about here, both issues that are preventable with a little more transparency, and there is no excuse for hiding the statistics from prospective students and the larger college community.

From community colleges to our nation’s elite universities, schools keep these particular skeletons in the deepest part of the closet. Schools are trying to protect their enrollment numbers and keep the admissions rate on the decline. The constant push for alumni dollars and academic talent may be hampered by the inconvenient fact that students are deciding to take their own lives left and right. Who wants to go to the school that is the nation’s “suicide leader?” Wouldn’t you think twice about going to a school that has the highest per capita “forced hospitalization” rate?

Despite schools’ secretive inclinations, these kinds of issues do come to light. Over the last two decades, several highly publicized suicides from Cornell and MIT, including a girl who set herself on fire in her dorm room, led to a national outcry for the publication of numbers. Schools resisted as best they could and did their utmost to pretend nothing was going on.

However, thanks to the diligent work of local reporters and continuous national pressure, the numbers eventually came out. Almost immediately, everyone understood why they were being hidden in the first place.

At Cornell, between 1996 and 2006, 21 students took their lives. Only three of these suicides were ever publicized. From 1990 to 2000, MIT’s student suicide rate was 53 percent higher than the national average.

The numbers went on and on and the public outcry reached an absolute furor.

And what came of it? After immense public pressure to overhaul its mental health care system, Cornell has dropped its per capita suicide rate by more than half, now falling well below the national average. MIT poured millions into its mental health care system and is now seen as a fantastic example of how to run an efficient and effective student wellness program.

It may be convenient for schools to suppress mental health numbers, but that action is both immoral and dangerous. Students and their families have a right to know how a school is addressing mental health on campus, because without transparency, there can be no accountability. With no accountability, our universities will not reform or improve and we will continue to lose students that did not have to be lost.

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