Legislation working its way through the New Jersey Senate would require colleges to disclose the number of students who die from suicide each year.
The reporting requirement comes as part of a two-bill package introduced by New Jersey State Senator Kevin O’Toole. The main legislation would require mental health care professionals to be available around the clock on New Jersey college campuses. The companion bill would require colleges to track and post online the number of suicides and attempted suicides.
“Requiring an institution of higher education to provide information on students enrolled in the institution who commit suicide or attempt suicide will help raise awareness of this critical issue,” the bill reads. O’Toole did not respond to requests for comment.
While mental health experts and college associations applaud the bill’s intentions, they say they’re worried the reporting requirement would have unintended consequences, including encouraging colleges to push suicidal students off campus to protect the colleges' reputations, thus scaring students from seeking help when they are depressed. They also say that publicly tracking student suicides can be difficult, as many institutions try to honor family requests to keep suicides out of public view, and a coroner's ruling can sometimes take months.
The legislation was inspired by the death of a successful college athlete who grew up in New Jersey. Madison Holleran, whom the legislation is named after, committed suicide in January 2014 while a student at the University of Pennsylvania. The case drew widespread media attention, and the university was accused of downplaying the number of student suicides that had occurred in the last year.
“We must make sure that she didn’t die in vain, that her tragedy will save others,” O’Toole said in a statement when he introduced the two bills in March. “In her name, and knowing how difficult it is as parents to know the depths of our children’s feelings and emotions, we are working to immediately pass legislation to create powerful suicide prevention and awareness programs.”
A month earlier, Holleran’s fifth-grade teacher, Edward Modica, created a petition addressed to the New Jersey State House proposing the legislation. The petition currently has 12,426 signatures. Last month, O'Toole's legislation passed the Senate Higher Education Committee.
Few New Jersey colleges have weighed in on the bills. Princeton University said in a statement this week that it supports the prevention legislation, but did not comment on the reporting bill. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey, of which Princeton is a member, stated on Monday that the association did not fully support the reporting bill and had “shared concerns” about the legislation with its sponsors.
In testimony sent to the Senate Higher Education Committee in June, the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities also said it was concerned about the reporting component of the legislation, saying it would be unhelpful to students and their parents.
“The information required by the bill is potentially misleading, because it presumes that there is a correlation between what services the school provides and the number of suicides or attempted suicides on campus,” the association stated. “That is certainly not the case. In addition, we have been informed by experts that publications of this information could have the unintended effect of either glamorizing suicide or contributing to the suicide contagion effect.”
Mental health experts urge institutions to use caution when announcing students have died from suicide. One highly publicized suicide often begets another, which in turn could inspire yet another, creating what is called a suicide cluster. Those clusters sometimes widen as other students mulling suicide learn how many others have died and begin to think of the act as a "viable option," said Dan Jones, chair of the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance.
Jones is also the director of the counseling center at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where an uncommonly high number of students died from suicide last year. ASU and Jones have won accolades for their attempts at addressing the mental health of students, but they suddenly lost three students to suicide in four months. Recently, the university saw a 118 percent increase in the number of students seeking counseling for having suicidal thoughts.
“Some schools that have extensive and comprehensive suicide prevention and treatment programs sometimes have a larger than normal amount of suicides in a given year or two,” Jones said. “The [legislation's] motives sound good, but there could be unintended consequences. Too much publicity for suicides could facilitate copycat or cluster suicides.”
That concern is shared by Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, an organization that works with colleges to prevent campus suicides. Schwartz said it's helpful for institutions to track suicides, but he worries that if colleges are required to publicly report every suicide or attempt on an annual basis, that some institutions experiencing an especially bad year might be tempted to encourage students to leave campus rather than risk the student committing suicide while still enrolled.
No college wants to be called a “suicide school,” as Cornell University was once known after several students jumped into the gorges that cut through the Ithaca campus. In 2010, at least six suicides occurred on campus across two semesters. Prior to that, however, Cornell had gone nearly five years without a student committing suicide. The University of Pennsylvania acquired a similar reputation after the suicides of Holleran and five other students last year.
Though such clusters are traumatic, and can be alarming to prospective students and parents, Schwartz said it’s important to keep the deaths in perspective -- a task he believes is difficult when a parent or student is simply looking at a number listed on a website.
The rate of suicide among college students is lower than that of the general population. Somewhere between 6 and 8 percent of college students report having serious suicidal thoughts, and between 1 and 2 percent of students will actually attempt suicide each year. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that the rate of suicide among college students is about 7.5 per 100,000. The rate for the general population of young people ages 20 to 24 is about 13 per 100,000.
“What rises as an immediate concern is that this may lead schools to overreact when they become aware of a student who has attempted suicide or has thought about it,” Schwartz said. “They might push them off campus, as to not have their statistics look bad, statistics that don’t really mean anything on an annual basis because of how much the numbers can fluctuate. Then once this starts to happen, you’ve created a situation where students won’t want to reach out for help.”
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