Third suicide this year at William & Mary highlights challenges of prevention

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:23 PM

WILLIAMSBURG - Friends of William and Mary sophomore Whitney Mayer awoke one morning last month to a final status update on Facebook: "thank you my friends. I love you, I love you, I love all of you. but I guess not enough, I'm sorry."

Mayer's body soon was found near Lake Matoaka, her favorite spot on campus. It was the third apparent suicide this calendar year at the College of William and Mary, leaving the school grappling with questions about what could have prompted the deaths and how another one might be prevented.

Before this year there had not been a suicide at the school in five years. And there is no way of knowing how the three deaths at William and Mary compare with other schools because no independent group compares suicide rates at colleges and universities.

Still, William and Mary, an elite state university with nearly 8,000 students in Virginia's Tidewater region, responded with major new initiatives on campus. College officials dispatched grief counselors. And the student government put notes on dorm-room doors warning of the signs of severe depression.

"Even if these aren't people we know directly, you always know someone who knew them," said Wesley Ng, president of a student health group. "It's scary when it touches you so closely. ... A lot of people are asking why, what could I have done?"

In February, senior psychology major Dominique Chandler was found dead in her campus dorm room. In April, the body of junior geology major Ian Smith-Christmas was discovered in his car, parked in Virginia Beach. And Mayer was found Oct. 15.

The student newspaper, the Flat Hat, raised questions about a decades-old label with this headline: "Surge in deaths leaves College battling reputation as a 'suicide school.' " College officials say such suggestions are unfair. William and Mary had 11 suicides in the 41 years before the recent run of deaths.

Few dispute that the school is filled with more than its share of high achievers, some of whom have difficulty admitting they might need help coping.

Students often joke about their devotion to academics and campus involvement, sometimes using the term "TWAMP," which stands for "Typical William and Mary Person." On a recent Thursday night, the town's half-hearted attempt at a bar scene - three delis near campus that serve alcohol - were sparsely filled. Meanwhile, the library was packed.

Campus suicide awareness campaigns often have focused on getting students comfortable with using words such as "depression" and dispelling myths about the counseling center.

"None of the students on this campus want to have problems," said Caitlin Goldblatt, a senior literary and cultural studies major who was friends with Mayer. "They want to be perfect."

Nationwide, the number of college students who have mental illnesses increases each year, as improved diagnoses and medication make it easier for them to stay in school and manage campus life. But problems can intensify amid the stresses of social conflicts, course work and the difficulties of transitioning to life away from home.

"Generations ago, some of the people we see on our campus now would not have made it to college," said Patricia Volp, William and Mary's dean of students.

Although statistics on college suicide rates are limited, experts say at least 1,100 students kill themselves each year nationwide, making suicide the second-most common cause of death for college students, after car accidents. Still, people of college age who are enrolled in classes are less likely to commit suicide than those not enrolled in school.

"Being in a college can be a protective factor," as students are part of a community stocked with easily accessible resources, said Elana Premack Sandler, a specialist at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a national group charged with helping curb suicide. "They can envision their future and they have that kind of structure."

But it can be a difficult for colleges to monitor the health of thousands of students while also adhering to privacy laws and making appropriate decisions about when one has become too ill to safely stay enrolled.

"Who is going to speak up if the consequence of speaking up is getting kicked out?" said Courtney Knowles, the executive director of the Jed Foundation, a New York-based group that seeks to prevent campus suicides. "Sometimes staying in school is the best thing for a student who is struggling."

Yet helping students who remain on campus can be difficult, even when colleges have fully staffed counseling centers. Students with serious issues do not always seek help - and when they do it's usually from friends or family members, not university officials.

Many colleges, including William and Mary, have added information about mental health issues to orientation sessions for students and parents. Officials also have trained professors and residence hall advisers to spot the signs of depression.

New York University, which has struggled with student suicides in recent years, screens every student who visits the health center for depression. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology extended its counseling center hours into the night several days a week and encouraged faculty members living in the residence halls to closely watch the stress levels of students.

Cornell University had at least six students commit suicide last school year. Three of those deaths were in one month, prompting the university president to take out full-page ads in the student newspaper urging: "If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help."

Even before the recent run of deaths, William and Mary - chartered by British royal authority in 1693, making it the nation's second-oldest college, after Harvard University - had acquired a whispered reputation as a "suicide school." In May, a group of commenters on College Confidential, an admissions Web site, passionately debated the label in a discussion about William and Mary.

After the deaths last semester, the university added a case manager in the dean of students office who carefully tracks vulnerable students and coordinates with all departments on campus to monitor them.

When a student is having a mental health crisis, health professionals and administrators assess the student and make a plan of action. That sometimes includes a leave from school.

"They could be doing straight-A work, but we have to focus on their medical issues first," said Virginia Ambler, William and Mary's vice president of student affairs. "The goal always is to get a student to a point where they can succeed."

Volp added: "And be alive."

Some of Mayer's friends said they knew she had dealt with mental health issues since high school. Others said they had no idea.

This semester seemed to be going well for Mayer. She was thinking about majoring in environmental sciences. She was involved with several clubs and had an internship as an event planner for an environmental nonprofit group. She had a new boyfriend, sophomore John Klepadlo. She spent hours at Lake Matoaka with her friends, canoeing, camping, watching a meteor shower and sitting on the dock. She filled her e-mails with exclamation points and words written entirely in capital letters.

But her demanding load of classes included a difficult chemistry course. And the problems of the world seem to weigh too heavily on her, said Klepadlo, a psychology major from Virginia Beach.

"At times she was happy, but she always had this thing eating away at her," Klepadlo said. "She didn't want to bother anyone with her problems."

Hours after Mayer's death, her roommate, Jess Yon, found typed letters sitting on a desk in neat rows and columns - messages of love and apology from Mayer to a number of people in her life. Mayer also left instructions on how to take care of her house plants.

On the front door was a letter to Yon, explaining what had happened and detailing the steps she needed to take, including notifying the campus police of a student death.

"It was just so thorough. She told me what to do. She said, 'It's not your fault,' " Yon said. "She was so passionate about so many things that weren't academic. I can't comprehend what the trigger was."

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