Thanks Patricia Alex, of the Bergen Record, NorthJersey.com for interviewing me on a complicated and important topic: Depression and Suicide during the college years, particularly during the initial transition to college. Each of us can make an impact.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 26, 2014 | BY PATRICIA ALEX | STAFF WRITER
The very public suicide this month of athletic standout Madison Holleran sparked an outpouring of grief and disbelief, both in Bergen County, where she excelled in track and soccer at Northern Highlands Regional High School, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was in the middle of her freshman year.
Suicide among the young, while statistically lower than that of older people, seems to register more profound shock, perhaps because the victims are at an age generally filled with so much hope and promise.
But young adulthood can be emotionally tricky, even perilous. There are new freedoms, responsibilities and relationships. There is more schoolwork but less sleep, and proper nutrition often suffers. Drugs and alcohol can be readily available, and many students are in charge of their own schedules for the first time. Afflictions such as depression and bipolar disorder often manifest themselves during the college years.
“It’s a complicated age when most of the major psychiatric complications emerge,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist who is medical director of the Jed Foundation, a non-profit that promotes emotional health and suicide prevention among college students.
But even for those without emotional problems, freshman year at college can be trying, and young adults sometimes don’t have the tools to cope. “They don’t have the maturity and range of experience to put things in perspective,” Schwartz said.
Madison Holleran had become depressed during her first semester at Penn despite her 3.5 grade-point average and a good showing on the track team, her father said, adding that she had started therapy.
The question of why a talented 19-year-old leapt from a five-story parking garage in Philadelphia’s Center City can never be adequately answered. But Holleran’s death has sparked conversation and concern about the often-fraught transition from high school to college and the burdens of being an overachiever.
“For some of these kids who are extremely successful and accomplished, it can be extremely difficult,” Schwartz said. “Someone who was an academic superstar in high school might find themselves in the bottom half or third of the pack at an elite college.”
Bill Alexander, director of counseling at the University of Pennsylvania, said most students admitted to the Ivy League school are used to a level of academic rigor. “It’s not new to them, but what might be new to them is they’re not the smartest kid in the class. It’s a stressor; they’re not the standout.”
For student athletes, the challenges can be compounded because they often spend 20 to 25 hours a week at their sport, Schwartz said.
Alexander agreed. “To be a varsity athlete is a huge demand on your time. You have to be disciplined; you can’t be too casual about managing your schedule. It’s a big responsibility.”
More than half of college students surveyed in 2013 said they experienced “overwhelming anxiety” at some point during the year and about one-third reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Another 8 percent reported that they’d seriously considered suicide, according to the survey by the American College Health Association.
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Maureen Tillman, a Morris County psychotherapist who works with adolescents, said families need to be realistic about the transition.
“It’s not a magical experience,” she said. “They need to keep it real. There are many challenges and you have to keep the lines of communication open.”
Particularly in more affluent towns, where the drive to reach a prestigious college can be consuming, students feel shame when they have a hard time making a go of it and are forced to return home to regroup, often at community college, said Tillman, whose website is collegewithconfidence.com.
“Some kids won’t even tell their closest friends why they’ve come home,” Tillman said. The quickened pace of college classes often trips up freshmen, she said. “Kids think they will be able to pull it out, and when they can’t, they start to sink.”
“In this age of technology, parents think they will be able to be on top of the situation and they often aren’t,” she said. “Kids can hide behind a text.”
She recommends that “the bubble wrap should come off” while students are still in high school, with parents ceding more responsibility — from laundry to meeting with teachers — to their children.
Most campuses have extensive counseling services and several efforts are under way to get students to take advantage of them.
“It’s important that students know what’s available to them on campus, and that there’s no stigma in taking advantage of it,” said Joe Clementi of Ridgewood, co-founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation at Rutgers University, which bears the name of his late son, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge in 2010 soon after beginning his freshman year at the state university.
“We have to educate kids — especially in the transition to college,” Clementi said. “Maybe the adolescent mind is not fully developed and can’t see a way out.”
Alexander, the director of counseling at Penn, said about 14 percent of the student body avails itself annually of the free and confidential counseling services. The staff of 40 includes five psychiatrists.
Counselors at Penn have reached out to students who may need help coping with Madison Holleran’s death. At least three fund-raisers have been launched in her memory, with proceeds going to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the organization’s Hannah Moch.
The foundation has hosted events on the Philadelphia campus, including a talk by the mother of Kyle Ambrogi, a popular player on the football team who shot himself to death in 2005.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of students adjust, and it’s important to note that the suicide rate for college students is lower than that for their peers who don’t go to college.
“College is still a hopeful time,” Schwartz said.
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