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In The Wake of a Suicide Epidemic, Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

In The Wake Of A Suicide Epidemic, Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words“It shouldn’t have happened to her.”

“She had so much to live for, she led such a lucky life.”

19-year-old Madison Holleran’s death shocked and frustrated her community. These comments I have heard not only signify a grieving community, but speak volumes toward how little is known about suicide.

While I’m not faulting those who spoke them, I am highlighting the necessity of education about suicide and mental health.

The University of Pennsylvania track star’s death came two days after my notification of the suicide of a classmate. It became clear that society was mourning with me.

As humans, it is in our nature to try to make sense of things, and our desire to know “why” has been the driving force behind our fascination with the tragic story of Madison Holleran. Confusion arose because she had “so much to live for,” which I am not denying. Countless stories of Madison’s successes and kindness have been told, and I need not repeat them.

But suicide isn’t about “having nothing to live for.” It is not a failure to recognize how lucky you are.

This confusion is where the problem lies.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students. Recent headlines shed light on the enduring question: Are universities doing enough?

Eighty percent of college students who completed suicide didn’t receive services from campus counseling.

Attention surrounding student suicides has made clear the gaps in services, forcing universities to reassess the accessibility of their programs. While important, I argue that there are additional places to look.

Providing counseling centers is not enough, when stigma prevents students from going. And if you do go, is it enough? Madison Holleran was seen by Penn’s counseling center.

When focusing solely on inadequate counseling services, we risk overlooking other areas with potential. Suicide prevention is left to the discretion of each school; there is no universal policy.

A popular policy mandates training faculty about warning signs of suicidal thoughts in students. With this “gatekeeper” training approach, professors and staff are educated in identifying “at-risk” students and available resources. Students aren’t involved unless warning signs are displayed.

Two-thirds of students surveyed who chose to disclose suicidal thoughts did so to a peer. Of undergraduates, almost none confided in a professor. Of graduate students — none. Why are we educating faculty over students?

University policies should require mandatory mental health and suicide education for students. Otherwise, we are leaving students responsible for seeking help. The “help is there if you want it” attitude is similar to blaming a neglected child for not taking advantage of child protective services. At least if a child requires help, he or she is not shamed for needing it.

Debunking myths and spreading facts about mental health problems and contributing factors would help reduce stigma and “victim-blaming.” Providing students with the same education as “faculty gatekeepers” would increase identification of warning signs. When an entire student body is educated, disclosing internal struggles to a peer may seem less ominous than risking that a confidant may be ill-equipped to respond.

Eighteen percent of undergraduate students have seriously considered attempting suicide in their lifetimes.

Mental health shouldn’t only be addressed when it becomes dangerous, just as healthy eating habits shouldn’t be endorsed only after a heart attack.

Mandating this education would benefit all students regardless of their position on the mental health spectrum. Many fear that open dialogue may lead to action. Yet this is false. Discussion may be the most beneficial tool in our arsenal.

Mandatory mental health education will not solve all our problems, yet as we find ourselves at the brink of an epidemic, it’s imperative that we explore various methods in reducing suicide in college students.

The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act of 2004 has provided suicide prevention grants for 38 schools. The GLSMA Reauthorization of 2013 was introduced into the Senate in January 2013, but hasn’t been passed.

I’m not saying that mandatory suicide education would’ve saved Madison Holleran or my classmate. But it’s a resource and an option that they did not have.

Alcohol consumption in universities cost thousands of lives before action was taken. Now, many schools require mandatory alcohol education, and these programs have been effective. How many more unnecessary deaths must we see before alternative actions towards suicide are considered?

If we don’t push toward further action, we will experience more deaths. And we will continuously be left wondering: Did we do everything we could?

In The Wake of a Suicide Epidemic, Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

Alex Harrsch

Alex Harrsch is a graduate student at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

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APA Reference
Harrsch, A. (2018). In The Wake of a Suicide Epidemic, Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 May 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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