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“I’m a grad student at Caltech…

… I didn’t know any of the students personally, but it’s still scary when this kind of thing goes on around you. And three in a few months seems like a really high number. I talked to a good friend of mine who happens to be a counselor, and he said that actually groups of suicides are a decently well understood phenomenon. In any community there is always a certain number of people who are on the edge, and something as emotionally charged as a suicide (or multiple suicides) in the community (especially a small community) is frequently enough to tip more of them over.”


Caltech had one student suicide in May, one in June, and one in late July. All were Asian-American men, and the second copied the first one’s method.

Long Phan, 23, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, was found dead in his rental apartment. He is the third Chinese-American student at the school to have committed suicide in the last three months. According to the World Journal, Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau responded immediately by creating an on-campus mental health task force. According to the article, the suicides started in May, when Brian Go killed himself by helium inhalation. Hong Kong immigrant Jackson Ho-Leung Wang ended his life on June 10.

Time magazine writes:

[C]ertain sub-groups of the Asian American community have higher rates of suicide compared with the nation as a whole — in particular, older Chinese women and Asian American students.

… “Although we don’t have good statistics [yet], we believe that many Asian American students are prone to feeling depressed over a lack of achievement,” [Stanley Sue, a professor of psychology and Asian American studies at U.C. Davis] says. Getting Bs instead of As on a report card may not seem like a great sin to most students, Sue says. But in a culture and family structure where sacrifice by an older generation for the advancement — and education — of its children is a deep-seated tenet, feelings of shame for “failing” can become unbearable, Sue says, noting that this pattern is most evident in families with immigrant parents and among foreign students sent to study at U.S. universities by their families.


UD‘s familiar with suicide clusters; her own university, GW, has had them, as has NYU. Back in 2005, two students at William and Mary killed themselves within hours of each other in exactly the same way – in a restroom, with a gun just bought at WalMart. I think only one of the students I’ve mentioned in this paragraph was Asian American. There were women as well as men among them.


A British columnist, reflecting on the suicide of a recently graduated Oxford University student, notes that this student, like some other student suicides in English and American universities, was addicted to drugs and alcohol.

It’s difficult for universities. I think it may be easier to spot a student with, say, manic depression or schizophrenia, than to identify, and help, an “addict” – and by addict I just mean an individual whose use of substances is affecting his or her life really badly. Nearly all students drink too much and almost as many take some illegal drugs. But only a small number are driven into depression, or worse, by their drinking or drug-taking. And it’s practically impossible to spot an incipient alcoholic in an environment like a university where colossal boozing is the accepted norm.

I had a student once, a guy, in my DeLillo course. Missed a lot of classes — though he was very smart and up on the reading when he was there — and looked way unhealthy. Approached my desk at one point and shocked me with his paleness, thinness, not-thereness… Eyes jutting about. Black hair askew, heavy black earrings, wispy black t-shirt. Perfectly coherent things came out of his mouth, and, as I say, in class his comments were informed and perceptive. But there was a nobody’s-home feel to the guy for sure.

What did UD do?

Nothing. Unless you call keeping a maternal eye on the guy something. I figured he might be insulted — might see me as patronizing him… Was he, you know, just emo? Plenty of high school and university students (UD was one of them… Actually, she’s still at the stage she’s about to describe.) go through a black-suited Nietzschean thang … What if he had philosophical, aesthetic reasons for what he was doing, rather than the pathological ones I was worried about?

He did okay in the course – not as well as he could have done – and … well, here’s one thing UD did do.

The following semester, I saw him in the Starbucks across from my office. I barely recognized him — plenty of skin on his bones, a face ruddy and bright, eyes focused. I went up to him.

“You look good. That’s a relief. Last semester, you looked a bit peaked.”

“Yeah thanks I was in bad shape last semester. Got over it.”

Maybe he got over it because some other professor without all of UD‘s complexes about other people’s privacy, etc., was more aggressive with him. I don’t know. I do know that the British writer is correct when he says it’s both difficult to identify with some confidence an endangered undergraduate addict, and yet more difficult to intervene.

Margaret Soltan, August 28, 2009 3:40PM
Posted in: demon rum

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5 Responses to ““I’m a grad student at Caltech…”

  1. theprofessor Says:

    When I get the gut feeling that something is seriously wrong, I nark on them to their academic advisors and the psychological counseling people. The worst that can happen is that someone will pull them in for a talk and watch them more closely for some time. I used to agonize over privacy, but after seeing too many go around the bend and several institutionalized, I don’t feel bad at all.

  2. david foster Says:

    A very-well-written story about a suicide that didn’t quite happen, here.

  3. University Diaries » A University Under Suicide Watch Says:

    […] year it was Caltech. This year, Cornell University is experiencing a string of student suicides. The number is in […]

  4. University Diaries » A suicide cluster among students at a top-ranked technology university. Says:

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    […] This is presumably (aside from privacy/family considerations) why the school fails to describe methods – you don’t want to give on-the-precipice students ideas. […]

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