Enterprise Article | Journalism II

In September 2008 Katrina Tagget died by suicide during her senior year at Michigan State University (MSU). During her last semester at MSU, she was living away from her friends in an off-campus house. She was juggling an internship, classes, and deciding if she would get a job, enter the Peace Corps, or begin law school after graduation.

Katrina Tagget struggled with depression all throughout high school, but her parents didn’t understand the severity of what they were seeing, according to an interview in 2015 with Sara Tagget, Katrina Tagget’s mother and the founder of the Katrina Tagget Memorial Foundation. The mounting pressures Katrina Tagget faced during her final year of college worsened her depression, leading to her to suicide.

Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide for college students, according to suicide.org, a non-profit organization raising awareness about suicide.

In 2013 the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC), reported suicide as the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 15 to 24. In 2012 the CDC had reported suicide as the third leading cause of death for individuals ages 15 to 24.

Since 1950 the suicide rate among individuals ages 15 to 24 has tripled, according to College

Degree Search, an organization helping match students to college majors and jobs.

Cornell Gorge Deaths
Cornell’s “suicide bridge” where many students have jumped to their deaths

Student pressures

In 2014 the American Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of University of California, Los Angles, reported that the emotional health of college freshmen is at the lowest in 25 years. Freshmen living away from home for the first time are subject to many causes of depression such as missing friends and family, feeling alone, facing difficult schoolwork and worrying about finances, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

With the increasing cost of college, students are worried about their job prospects upon graduation, according to College Degree Search. As such, many students are pushing themselves to make excellent grades, getting their money’s worth and increasing their job prospects.

Students are discouraged when they find themselves struggling to make good grades in college

after excelling in high school.

“Grades meant so much to her, she just lived for grades,” said Sara Tagget about her daughter, Katrina Tagget.

In an interview in 2015, Morgan Jacobs*, a junior in high school, said the burden to do well in school is a chain reaction. She said she has to make good grades now to get accepted to a good college, and will have to do well in college to get a good job one day.

Jacobs said, “If your grades aren’t what you want, you start thinking you’re not good enough.”

She believes once she’s in college it will only get more difficult.

At prestigious schools where the pressure to do well is often greater, suicide rates are higher. An article in the Boston Globe written by Matt Rocheleau in March 2015 studied suicides at Ivy League schools. Rocheleau reported that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University have suicide rates higher than the national average.

Colleges taking action

As suicide rates among young adults increase, the mental health of students is gaining more national attention, forcing colleges to step up.

When four MIT students died by suicide during the 2014 school year, public pressure forced the university to re-examine its practices. However, it wasn’t until 2015, following the suicides of two students in the same week, that MIT temporarily cut back the students’ course loads and made exams optional in order to allow students relief and time to grieve, according to an article in the New York Daily News written by Rachelle Blinder in March 2015 on the higher than average suicide rates at MIT.

In October 2014 the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization enacting programs nationwide to improve the mental health of young adults, announced in a press release that over 55 colleges signed up for its Health Matters Campus Program. For the next four years the colleges will be evaluated on the resources they have in place to help students suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness. The Jed Foundation will assist the schools in improving their current practices and expanding their resources.

Under the Campus Suicide Prevention program of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, colleges can apply for funds to assist in improving their mental health services and suicide education programs, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nationwide organization raising awareness and funds for suicide prevention and research.

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Photo credit: Kathy Kmonicek | Student Activities at Stony Brook College hosts depression screening

Limits colleges are facing

Even with the ability to apply for grants and participate in programs to supplement their mental health resources, colleges are still limited in the help they can offer students.

An article in the New York Times written by Trip Gabriel in December 2010 examined the growing mental health needs of colleges. The article found that the staff at campus mental health centers has not grown in proportion to student enrollment in years.

To deal with the disproportionate ratio of students to counselors, students are put on wait lists and are limited in the number of therapy sessions they can attend. If students cannot get in to see a counselor they are often referred to off-campus health facilities, according to Gabriel.

Sara Tagget has been a proponent of mental health resources at high schools and colleges since her daughter’s death at MSU. She said that while colleges are aware student suicides are a big problem, colleges are like little communities and have so many other things they’re trying to deal with.

An article in the Huffington Post written by Tyler Kingkade in October 2014 on campus mental health services quoted Dr. Dan Jones, director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center at Appalachia State University saying, “it’s going to require more money” to provide students the help they need. Jones said most university budgets don’t support hiring enough counselors to meet student needs.

Due to a lack of funds, colleges often rely on outside organizations to intervene and help students better cope with their mental health problems. Active Minds, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America are organizations with myriad college chapters focused on creating college campaigns to help those with mental illnesses, working to end the stigma associated with mental illness, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

Balancing safety and stigma

With suicide still a rather taboo topic on college campuses, a lack of resources and fear of stigma put college students in danger of never seeking or receiving treatment. NAMI reported that 57 percent of college students did not seek help from their schools for mental health conditions. The number one reason reported by those students for why they did not seek help was fear of stigma, according to NAMI.

In the weeks before Katrina Tagget’s suicide, she drafted a paper for a class entitled, “The Misconception of Suicide,” in which she wrote, “The act of killing oneself is absolutely taboo, to the point where someone who even considers doing such a thing is often taught to feel ashamed.”

Jacobs said she’s afraid to let her friends know how much she’s struggling with the pressures of school, because they can handle it and she can’t. She said she also feels the stigma associated with her depressive thoughts.

Kingkade’s article referenced students who were removed from campus after reporting their suicidal thoughts and behaviors to campus mental health services.

In 2013, a Yale student was forced to withdraw from the university after being admitted to the hospital for cutting herself. Another student, an incoming freshman, was told to get mental health treatment before starting at Yale because of her history of mental illness. Even after she complied, Yale still forced her to take time off, according to Kingkade.

In Kingkade’s article, the Jed Foundation said they don’t like when students are removed from campus, even if it’s said to be for the safety of the student body and the individual student. The Jed Foundation believes it makes others suffering from mental illness afraid to ask for help.

Proposed legislation is working to combat the stigma perpetuated by colleges.

Madison Holleran, a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student, took her life in 2013 when the mounting pressures of college were too much. According to an article in the New York Daily News written by Nina Golgowski in February 2015, the Madison Holleran Law, proposed by Madison’s former teacher, would force schools to report the annual number of student suicides and attempted suicides. The goal of the law is to promote more transparency and accountability, combating some of the stigma produced when suicides are concealed by colleges.

*name has been changed at the request of the subject

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