In April of 2016, Olivia Kong, a junior at Wharton College, took her own life at 40th Street Station. Her death sent shockwaves through the University of Pennsylvania, as students reacted with a mix of horror, sadness, and frustration. Ultimately, her death helped bring further attention to the difficult topic of suicide, which is becoming an increasingly serious problem nationally, and a near epidemic at Penn, where fourteen students (including Olivia) have taken their own lives over the past five years.
Dr. Britt Beasley, a psychiatrist with John Applegate & Associates, explains that the most essential duty of college counseling centers is to recognize which patients need urgent help: “The counseling center needs to have a good protocol for referring to an emergency room or some kind of emergency psychiatric service that can evaluate these people. That’s the standard of care; to have people who have enough experience to know which people need to be evaluated urgently.”
After her death, many Penn students began to question how the campus culture at Penn creates or aggravates mental health issues. The university itself has admitted it has a “highly competitive academic and extra-curricular culture that some students perceive to demand perfection” and that life at Penn can lead to students feeling “overwhelmed.”
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that around half the U.S. population will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their life, and as many as one in five will suffer from mental illness in a given year. A 2012 survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 36% of college students suffering from mental health issues reported that stigma surrounding mental illness served as a barrier to seeking treatment.
Although Penn’s problems with student mental health and suicide are especially concerning, they are far from unique. The disturbing trend of increasing suicide rates is found across the nation. The CDC estimates that suicide rates have risen in forty nine of the fifty states since the year 1999. In fact, according to a recent AP story, last year the U.S. government estimated over 47,000 suicide deaths nationwide, the highest number in fifty years. This trend has seen suicide rise to the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the second among people aged 15-34 as stated by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Beasley thinks the church can help change the way mental health issues are discussed. “Clearly there’s stigma on the part of patients and families, especially so in churches in general. There’s an added level of stigma which is ‘there must be a problem in your spiritual discipline; you’re just not exhibiting enough faith.’ I think a bigger discussion and education on mental illness and the theology of mental illness and its treatment is definitely needed.”
Practical steps can be taken to help address the growing crisis of suicide. Although treatment of those contemplating suicide is best left to professionals, it's up to patients (or their friends) to reach out for help. Beasley says there are some times when a person needs emergency intervention: “One of the predictive questions we ask people is ‘are the patients future oriented… are they making plans for their future?’…If they have an end point in their mind, when their life is going to end—if you’re seeing that, definitely have them see a psychiatrist.” As with any other illness, it is also wise to come alongside to pray for and encourage any who are dealing with mental hardship and illness; for “the prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working” (James 5:16, ESV).
For those who have been affected by suicide and issues surrounding death, Tenth is hosting a talk followed by a panel discussion by Dr. Matthew McCullough — “Taking Death Personally.” More about the event and registration can be found at www.tenth.org/rememberdeath