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

William and Mary has responded to the suicides with major new initiatives on campus.
William and Mary has responded to the suicides with major new initiatives on campus. (Jay Paul/For The Washington Post)
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.

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