Miércoles 31 de Octubre de 2007, Ip nº 214

Relationships: Depression, new locale a deadly mix for some
Por By Gail Rosenblum

One of the unexpected pleasures of launching a child into college is the abundance of newsy correspondence that lands in my mailbox every week or so. Not from my college kid, of course, who checks in via e-mail and text-messages. While we catch up electronically about classes, roommates and life in the big city, her university's marketing machine sends me about the only snail mail I get anymore: enticing bits about upcoming events, tips for resisting "helicopter-parent" urges, gentle reminders to keep those payments coming.

So I was blindsided when I opened a recent letter from the director of the school's student health center:

"It is with much sorrow that I must tell you of the suicide death of one of our students, a freshman, on the morning of Saturday, September 22."

My immediate reaction was predictable and nonsensical. Air in the room dissipated, noise stopped, I felt nauseated. Our kid?

Of course not. Her dad and I had spoken to her many times since that day and nobody delivers this kind of news in a letter. But it was someone's kid. And parents like us, who launched their child into young adulthood with so much promise, were now dealing with unspeakable pain.

My friends will tell you that I am the anti-helicopter mom. I prod them to let go already and joke that I'm the child of "ambulance parents" whose motto was "Call us, honey, if they can't stop the bleeding." But while I do think we hover too much, I'm reminded every so often that the middle ground is probably the sturdiest place for all of us to stand.

The fact is that suicide deaths among college students are rare, but far from inconsequential. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among Americans ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it ranks second for that age group in Minnesota, said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, www.save.org ).

Suicide deaths among college students nationwide are second only to traffic accidents. About 1,000 college students take their lives every year.

So, of course, we ask, why?

The short answer: mental illness. Studies suggest that about 15 percent of people between 18 and 24 experience mental health challenges such as depression and bipolar disorder. About one-tenth find life unbearable enough to consider ending it. Nearly half of those in one survey were deemed "so depressed they found it difficult to function."

This is true all year long. It is a myth that suicide rates are higher around the winter holidays. They occur in a steady stream throughout the year. In Minnesota, in fact, slight bumps occur in fall and spring.

"The first year of college is hard, no doubt about it," said Reidenberg. "Parents need to understand that the transition is far harder today because of the expectations placed on students. It's no longer 'Pick yourself up.' There are more struggles; the competition is higher."

And getting higher. In a recent survey of 300 counseling center directors, about 80 percent said that students have more psychological difficulties than just five years ago.

The bright spot, if there is one, is that counseling centers are responding with a growing number of mental health services and programs on campuses nationwide. A universal effort such as this may lessen the stigma associated with mental illness, which continues to be an obstacle to suicide prevention.

That's important. Depression is highly treatable, but only if your child reaches out. That's where a little helicoptering isn't a bad idea.

"Stay connected. Ask questions. Don't be intrusive, but do inquire," Reidenberg said. If you're unsure about how much to check in, let your child weigh in. "Ask, 'How often do you want me to call you? Am I getting in your way?' It is going to help them mature and develop if they have a piece in finding the answer," he said.

But you are still the parent. If you sense that your child is struggling in troubling ways, such as not eating or withdrawing from classes and friends, call your doctor immediately or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

More often, though, what your almost-adult needs more than anything is to just be heard by you. "Listen. Don't minimize," Reidenberg said. "Tell them you understand how difficult this is."
Encourage a visit to the student health center or to websites that show they are far from alone with their feelings. (Two good ones: www.jedfoundation.org and the peer-to-peer activemindsoncampus.org.)

As parents, there's nothing we want more than happy kids who grow into happy adults. Most get there. But everyone's road is bumpy at times and that's OK. We can smooth the way by being close enough to hear them when they call.

  22/10/2007. StarTribune.com.