Suicide at one college prompts questions about stress in elite education

Tragedy is fourth such death this year on the campus

Last week a sophomore at the College of William & Mary in Virginia committed suicide, marking the fourth student death at the school this year and raising concerns over how the stress of college life can promote mental distress.

Paul Soutter, who died last week, was described by friends as an excellent student and "brilliantly funny," according to the Washington Post. He was set to act in a student-authored play on Thursday that examined how the stress of college life can wear on students.

The play has been postponed, but Soutter's death has brought the play's themes to the forefront of discussions at William & Mary. The school has experienced eight student deaths since 2010.

Unanswered questions

"I don't know what he was dealing with," says Tess Higgins, a senior who wrote the play that Soutter was set to perform in. However, she says there is a sense the pressure of college life can be too much on some students. She cited a faculty email sent after Soutter's death—widely circulated on campus—which declined a student's request for an extension because of the death.

Higgins notes that her own professors have been very accommodating, and a spokesperson for the school says faculty have been instructed to be as considerate as possible. Even so, Higgins says students often feel pressure to succeed in all circumstances. "We should be encouraged to take risks and fail gloriously," she says, adding, "If we can't do it here, then where can we do it?"

Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness, says William & Mary is taking steps to better address mental health concerns within the student body, such as hiring a full-time psychiatrist and launching an after-hours call center. However, he notes that academic stress is actually a poor predictor of suicide—the largest risk factor is a history of mental health issues.

Counseling and health centers partner to save students

A larger trend

A string of student suicides at elite colleges and universities recently has sparked a debate about how the pressure of academic life affects students. For instance, at the University of Pennsylvania, six students committed suicide between the fall of 2013 and the fall of 2014, according to the Boston Globe. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell University, and other schools have also had clusters of suicides in recent years.

Unusually high suicide rate prompts new wellness efforts at MIT

According to several recent studies, the national rate of suicide among college students is between 6.5 and 7.5 per 100,000 students.

But many elite schools see rates much higher than the average. For example, the suicide rate for undergraduates at MIT has been approximately 12.6 over the last decade, and the rate for undergraduates at at Harvard University was 11.8.

According to the Jed Foundation, which works to promote mental health among college students, 1,100 students take their lives each year—making suicide the second-most common cause of death among college students (Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 4/15; Rocheleau, Boston Globe, 3/17).

The takeaway: A suicide at the College of William & Mary is the fourth such tragedy this year, and a string of suicides at elite colleges in recent years is raising questions about how the stress of college life can promote mental distress.

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