… presents agonizing problems for universities. How do you mark it communally without risking contagion? What if the student’s family has begged you to preserve its privacy? Students may want to discuss whether it points to larger problems with campus mental health care, or with quality of life at the school altogether.

Like other large urban universities, New York University has had more than its share of student suicides, including suicide contagions. It has had to retrofit its library to keep students from jumping off its high atrium.

This year, there have been two suicides in the med school, and, at the beginning of this month, an NYU freshman threw himself in front of a subway train. In the med school cases, the school announced each death, expressed sympathy, and reminded students of available counseling. It has very carefully not gone beyond this, even when prompted:

[Journalists asked NYU] if the school was concerned over a trend of suicide among medical professionals and if any larger efforts are being made by the university to prevent future instances, but the Medical school’s response didn’t tackle those questions.

“Because of the sensitive nature of this issue, we will not be commenting further,” the spokesperson said.

The school has been even more subdued about the 18-year-old male freshman who killed himself this month. Asked why, a spokesman said:

“If we believe that refraining from sending a broad communication can reduce the chances of a contagion effect, we are more than willing to absorb any resulting criticism.”

The spokesman cited “the university’s own research and personal experiences with suicide along with consultations with national experts.” Rather than make a large public announcement, the school has acted locally, contacting “anyone the university deems … in close proximity to the student: family, friends, professors, floormates and sometimes even the student’s entire school or degree program.”

*************

The real problem, if you ask me, is that suicide seems to all of us one of the most eloquent things we do. We attach all sorts of broad existential significance to the act, even if most actual suicides are, in the words of A. Alvarez, “a terrible but utterly natural reaction to the strained, narrow, unnatural necessities we sometimes create for ourselves.”

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4 Responses to “Student suicide…”

  1. dmf Says:

    not all of the potentially overwhelming factors that might lead to suicide are self created and not sure what extra work “unnatural” might be doing here are we somehow alien or is this just moralizing?
    Med schools are still not open to deep reforms:
    https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/medical-residents-vulnerable-to-depression-and-burnout-survey-suggests-1.4856817

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    dmf: I don’t think Alvarez is denying the role outside influences play, but he IS in his book finally arguing that suicide (he describes his own quite serious but unsuccessful suicide effort when a young man) is in most cases deeply personal, contingent to one particular life, and difficult to generalize from. By “unnatural” I think he means to evoke the weirdness of our capacity to generate motives/beliefs/actions profoundly at odds with our own well-being, our own natural (animal) inclination to survive.

  3. dmf Says:

    yes very good and part of why contemporary psychiatry is so ill-suited to deal with much of it.

  4. dmf Says:

    ps while outside factors can contribute I was thinking more of the bodily suffering we generally associate with assisted suicide but which is really most often done by the person suffering without any medical help, especially in the realm of “psychiatric” diseases which somehow still aren’t taken seriously as physical illnesses, just part of why we need to end that specialty and get those folks in to see neurologists, rheumatologists or the like.

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