Campus suicides spur push for better mental health aid

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

“If you’re reading this, I am dead.”

University of Michigan student Brittney Williams, right, talks about stressful challenges with her psychologist, Nina Nabors.

So begins chapter 10 in a 306-page treatise on suicide that was written and published online by a Michigan State University student who recently took his own life.

Patrick Kegan Cochrane, a senior from Laramie, Wyoming, wrote in his last post on Facebook that anyone who loved him should read that chapter in his book that he published on a blog — which also included 21 good-bye letters to family and friends. He even wrote a letter to the police officer who would find his body April 13 near Baker Woodlot on south campus and also uploaded several videos to YouTube.

“Across the world are people with near unimaginably horrible lives,” Cochrane wrote. “How dare I sit here feeling bad when they actually have good reason to feel bad about their lives! I hate myself for my self-pitying disposition. But I am so weak. Where others can handle so much stress in their lives, I can handle so little.”

Homicides land on the front page, but every year, three times more people kill themselves. It’s an issue that a growing chorus of students are talking about on college campuses, where suicide is the second-most common cause of death and mental health is a top concern, along with sexual assault, diversity and excessive drinking.

While Cochrane’s death is perhaps one of the most high-profile in recent memory, two other suicides occurred in the past month at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University — prompting calls for campus officials to better address students’ mental health and increase resources.

Students on campuses here and nationwide are demanding action, and school officials say they’re trying to respond.

“Like most universities we are struggling with how to best address this when it comes to student life,” said UM Regent Mark Bernstein. “It’s an enormous challenge that is very complex. But the health and well-being of our students is obviously an enormous concern of ours.”

At MSU, students responded to Cochrane’s death with a petition urging more funding of mental health for issues such as filling staff vacancies at the counseling center; so far, more than 1,500 signatures have been collected.

“The goal of wanting better services ultimately is to prevent things like (Cochrane’s death) from ever happening again,” said Natalie Spratt, an MSU sophomore who was friends with him. “Probably not ever because the world is not ideal, but if anything like that can be prevented at all, that would be a step in the right direction.”

Spratt attended a campus memorial for Cochrane and a handful of other students who died in the past year and said it helped her and others find closure. But she signed the petition because there are many students who are struggling and waiting to get into the university’s counseling center, and who can’t afford to go off campus.

After a UM student committed suicide in March, senior Brittney Williams stood before the Board of Regents and shared what led to her unsuccessful attempt to take her life in 2009 after the diagnosis of her mother’s early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Williams left UM a few years later to be her mother’s full-time caregiver, then returned in 2015 and noticed university investments in several buildings on campuses — but little in mental health services.

She said that UM’s Counseling and Psychological Services was still in the same small office it had been 10 years earlier. It had not expanded to north campus, there were still wait times of three to five weeks to see a counselor, and staffing levels had not changed to match UM’s growing student population.

She discovered some changes to address student mental health on campus, such as a peer-run counseling group, but thought, that’s it?

“When the university will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the revamping of residence halls and campus buildings, but on the back burner is desperately needed expansion and overhaul of mental health services, that is not only a disappointment and embarrassment, it is a failure of the students it serves,” said Williams, who this year was named a Student of the Year by the Michigan Daily. “We cannot claim to be the ‘leaders and best’ when funding to make sure our leaders are at their mental best is far from satisfactory.”

At the time Williams addressed the board, Regent Denise Ilitch said the university had spent an enormous amount of time discussing this issue and increasing the budget. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, added that seven additional staff were added last year, and counselors have been embedded around campus. Earlier this month, UM President Mark Schlissel suggested that the university may open another mental health clinic.

It’s an idea that’s being explored, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said, adding that there has been a 29 percent increase in students who have sought counseling this school year over last year.

Students across the nation are reaching out more often for help because mental health is becoming less stigmatized, said Dr. Nance Roy, clinical director of the JED Foundation, which works to protect emotional health and prevent suicide among college and university students.

In addition, more college students are struggling because they are less resilient, having been raised in very protective environments, Roy said. There is enormous pressure on students to succeed and be perfect, and social media doesn’t help. Meanwhile, some students lack basic life skills, others come to campus with pre-existing mental health issues and everyone has to rebuild the social networks they’ve left at home while navigating their academics.

“It’s quite a lot to juggle,” Roy said, “and in some cases can create a perfect storm.”

The push to address mental health comes as a new federal report showed that suicide is at a 30-year high, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. After a decline from 1986 through 1999, the trend has reversed, and rates have steadily increased from 1999 through 2014 among all age groups.

“There is more pressure on undergraduates for their grades and there are financial stressors that have been significantly increased in the last decade,” said Scott Becker, director of the MSU Counseling Center. “The culture is also more stressful following 9/11 and Virginia Tech (University), the threat of terrorism and campus shootings.”

Competition is at epic levels on campuses in the information age and a global economy.

“We live in an incredibly stressful and competitive age right now,” said David Schafer, UM’s student body president. “But more students are feeling comfortable drawing attention to disparities in resources and their need for them.”

The hope, said MSU student activist Aaron Stephens, who started the MSU petition, is that universities start investing more in mental health services. “Because if you don’t have those resources,” Stephens said, “it can snowball into something a lot worse.”