The recent suicide of agricultural student, David Malebana, after he had gunned down three of his lecturers in the Northern Province because they would not pass him for his practical year, throws the spotlight on the pressures of tertiary education and resultant violent acts. Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst university students after accidents. Since 1950, the suicide rate for white males (15-24) has tripled and for white females (15-24) has more than doubled. In the last 15 years, the suicide rate for black males (15-24) has risen by 2/3. Furthermore, studies suggest that as many as 20% of college students have suicidal thoughts at some point in their college career.
The life phases of adolescence and young adulthood can be particularly trying. The youth of today have to face the hard task of forming a separate identity from one’s primary family group in an increasingly demanding and competitive society. A prominent psychologist in Johannesburg agrees with this view: “The physical, social and academic changes that occur in adolescence and young adulthood can be overwhelming. Unresolved conflicts from childhood years often surface in this period. In fact the early symptoms and signs of many psychological disorders first emerge in late adolescence (15-18 years).”
Researchers argue that varsity life involves a number of additional pressures on the student. Students have to cope with greater academic demands, the loss of social support, the challenge of being in a new environment, changes in family relations, increased financial responsibilities and a heightened awareness of their sexual identity and orientation. Students are also exposed to new people, ideas and temptations, and often experience a rapid change of values. Furthermore, students often bring unresolved problems with them into their new environments. Students who never learnt how to deal with their personal problems and emotions before entering varsity will have fewer resources available to them to do so in the varsity setting.
Interestingly enough, varsity students who commit suicide display different personality traits to non-students who commit suicide. Non-students who commit suicide tend to have high risk taking personalities who frequently abuse drugs and alcohol. By contrast, varsity students who are at risk are largely depressed, quiet, socially isolated young people who do not abuse alcohol or drugs and draw little attention to themselves. For them, death is seen as comforting – an escape from their depression.
Suicide is not more frequent in any one particular varsity year, but it does occur more often in students who take more than four years to earn their degree. In the U.S., U.K. and Japan, suicide is more prevalent among the elite schools. These findings could be linked to the amount of pressure exerted on students in these settings. Keeping in line with general findings, varsity women attempt suicide more frequently than men do, but varsity men succeed in ending their lives more often.
What other factors predispose students in tertiary education to suicidal acts? Research has shown that 90% of suicide cases have a psychiatric diagnosis – depression combined with alcohol or substance abuse is the most common diagnosis but victims can also suffer from schizophrenia or personality disorders. Other warning signs include individuals having made previous attempts at suicide, having access to firearms and having recently experienced a negative life event. Ninety percent of suicide cases are triggered off by a humiliating life event, recent disappointment or the individual being involved in some sort of trouble.
There is great variability in the types of approaches that are used to hospitalise suicidal youths. In less severe cases, family members should be involved to provide support and professionals should try and decrease the risk by prescribing strong medication that is non-lethal in overdose and increasing contact with the patient. Short crisis oriented psychotherapy that involves the family has been found to be particularly useful.
Studies have found that even though almost half of suicidal youths report for some kind of medical treatment in the months prior to their committing suicide, very few professionals pick up the warning signs. In the monitored university surroundings, lecturers, coaches and res counsellors should keep a wary eye out for students that appear morbidly depressed or quietly withdrawn. Identifying young people at risk and offering them treatment quickly is an important step in reducing youth suicides.
The Gauteng-based Depression and Anxiety Support group has recently launched a successful schools programme to combat the increasingly high number of youth suicides which have been reported. The support group hopes to increase awareness of youth suicide as well as sending the message that there is help available. Trained counsellors can be reached on (011) 783-1474/6 or 0800 11 9283, Mondays to Saturdays from 8am to 8pm.
Suicides can be prevented by establishing suicide hotline communities, enforcing stricter firearms control and focusing on public education about topics related to suicide. Students who are battling in the university setting should try and share their experiences and problems with others at their college. Troubled students should also try and keep the following pointers in mind:
· Don’t give in to negative thinking
· Take an active role in getting better
· Be good to yourself while you’re getting better
1. Lipschitz. A, College Student Suicide, Lifesavers, Quarterly Newsletter of the American Suicide Foundation, Fall 1994