Some students can’t cope with college stress
Finding a niche among more than 15,000 students and trying to balance school and work can cause a great amount of stress.
For some who feel that there can be no end to the stress, suicide may seem like a viable escape.
"Suicide is really hard to understand in any form of logic," said Steve Brown, director of the counseling center at East Tennessee State University. "It is a myopic view of the world where you shut out everybody else and make a choice, but it's basically the ultimate disconnection, and humans thrive on connection."
According to Brown, three students have taken their lives this semester at ETSU.
The number of suicides on the ETSU campus has not increased significantly in comparison to the increasing student population.
Brown said that the national average for college campuses is seven suicides per 100,000 students.
Reasons vary for why people choose to do this. Some of the major stressors include schoolwork, uncertainty about the future, distance from family, housing and auto expenses and student loan debt.
"One of the main things that stress students out is that they have to work almost every day at a low-paying job to help pay for school and bills, and they constantly have to worry about maintaining a good GPA," said Brianna Bullock, 19. "On top of that, projects, tests and homework from all classes are almost always due within the same period."
Brown believes that high school does not prepare students to be independent in college. He said that they are not prepared to deal with the stress; they get overwhelmed and perform at a lower level.
College life introduces a new realm of responsibilities. For the first time in many students' lives, they have no one holding them accountable and have new expenses and deadlines. They have to balance their time tactfully between their various commitments.
For many, this means not having a personal life and not participating in campus events. Campus and community involvement are ways that students can relate with each other and share interests.
"Lots of stress comes with social interaction," said a student who attempted suicide. "Get involved on campus. Put yourself out there if you're having trouble fitting in. Join a club."
Brown said that ways that students can find stability are to learn how depression, anxiety and stress work, build and follow a schedule, stay on top of the work load, and eat and sleep well.
Brown said that students get to college with the expectation that they should know how to cope, but many do not know.
Awareness of the signs of severe depression is the first step to helping someone who may be considering suicide. If an individual isolates him or herself, quits participating in social functions or in class or has a noticeable change in demeanor, these can be reasons to inquire and offer help.
ETSU Prevention through Education, Awareness, and Knowledge of Suicide is a grant-funded program at ETSU that has hosted many events and that provides resources to inform and prevent suicide. The PEAKS website etsu.edu/etsupeaks/ gives guidelines for how to speak to someone directly and uncritically.
Some students believe that they are not affected by suicide or that they do not know anyone who is thinking about it, but many complain that they are overwhelmed.
Whether they admit it or not, Jameson Hirsch, assistant professor of psychology who oversees the PEAKS program, said that a large number of students have thought about suicide.
"The more people who open themselves up to learning how to approach a suicidal student, the lower risk there is going to be on this campus," Brown said.
Awareness is crucial for prevention. Individuals are constantly crossing paths and often looking at cell phones, cracks in the sidewalk, and the walls of the buildings. Perhaps it derives from some estranged fear of eye contact or human connection.
"Part of the reason why we see suicide as a primary concern is because a lot of folks don't feel connected," Brown said. "Though there are 300 million of us here, we don't feel connected. With 15,000 students on campus, how much sense does it make that folks struggle to be connected?"
These human relationships can be the one thing that keeps a person from dying by suicide.
One person who attempted suicide said that one of the last things he considered before he attempted to take his life was the effect that it would have on his family and friends.
Interaction in class and at extracurricular activities benefits the self in developing social skills as well as benefiting society by having a greater presence in each other's lives.
"We hear a lot from professors where students' behavior has changed," said Jeff Howard, associate dean of student affairs. "Maybe they have been participating in class, attending and turning in assignments, and all of a sudden they're not showing up or participating anymore."
He said that they have mechanisms for teachers to report students for whom they are concerned to Student Affairs or to programs such as Grades First.
Howard asked, "Are they acting out of their ordinary routine? Have you not seen them? Are they not showing up? Are they not participating as they once did?"
People can look for these red flags and advise their distressed friend to speak with a professional.
"People have different levels of comfort about where to go or who they want to talk with," Howard said. "The biggest thing is confronting the issue and making sure that the person is OK and that they are getting some help and that you've reached out to them to connect them to that kind of help."
Professors are not the only ones responsible for knowing how to talk to someone who is distressed.
"A lot of the time, friends bring friends in [to counseling.]" Brown said.
Hirsch said that oftentimes the first people a person will go to in a crisis are their friends. This may be because there is a stigma attached to seeking help. People want to appear courageous.
"We find that people still strongly feel that if you go to see a therapist or a psychiatrist, or a psychologist that you have a problem or that you can't handle your own stuff," Hirsch said. "I think it's looked down on especially at this young age when people are pretty sensitive to how they appear to other people."
The Counseling Center is available to students on the third floor of the D.P. Culp Center. They offer professional, confidential counseling and can refer students to psychiatrists. They are flexible with student schedules and have a diverse staff.
Students come for a consultation and are then placed with the most appropriate counselor.
Their website etsu.edu/students/counseling/ has helpful links to campus resources and events as well as to 24-hour help lines.
A suicide attempter said, "The ETSU Counseling Center was very helpful and professional."
Hirsch said that optimism and goal setting are great ways to establish hope and a future orientation.
Thinking that things can get better, capitalizing on the good qualities that a person has and highlighting existing social relationships can help open people's eyes to what they have available to them.
"We could be a very welcoming community, and that's what I would like to see happen here at ETSU - where everybody feels welcome, where there's a hand extended to everybody," Brown said. "All of us are going to have trouble at one time or another; all of us have got issues to work through. So we need each other."
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