Suicide: the silent struggle

By Kelsey Leiter
Correspondent

May 9, 2013. April 30, 2014. Oct. 6, 2014.

Three tragedies. Less than two years. One life altering decision: the individual moments when three different students from the College decided to end their lives.

Among the general population of young adults aged 18-24, homicide and suicide are the second and third leading causes of death.

The College hosts ‘Send Silence Packing,’ a display to raise awareness about mental health struggles. (Kim Iannarone / Photo Assistant)
The College hosts ‘Send Silence Packing,’ a display to raise awareness about mental health struggles. (Kim Iannarone / Photo Assistant)

There are currently no studies comparing homicide and suicide rates of students that fall within that age demographic both on and off campuses — however, many campus professionals dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health promotion often refer to suicide as the second leading cause of death among college students, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s website.

When sending their children off to four-year institutions for higher learning, parents may feel a tumultuous ensemble of emotions. Pride, joy, hope for the potential future — are all at the forefront of their minds. Somewhere in a darker corner, however — worry, anxiety, fear.

On one hand, they are nostalgic for the child they swear was two-years-old less than five minutes ago. But, they are also excited for their son or daughter as they recall the experiences they had at the colleges they attended. Could that really be 20 years ago?

On the other hand, the gut-wrenching feelings they may have stem from their innate habit of worrying, something they might try to stifle but can never completely defeat. Their uneasiness can also be equated with the horror stories of things like alcohol poisoning, Greek life hazing and drug abuse, among other tragedies, that occur on college campuses across the U.S.

These worries are not just founded in shocking news stories, but also in startling statistics. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.

With college campuses focusing on issues like these, it is often more startling when a suicide occurs on a college campus. When students, who seemingly have everything to live for, take their lives, it sends a crippling wave of shock across campuses all over the country, affecting families and students alike.

At the College, the first death by suicide in the last several years was that of tennis captain Paige Aiello, 21, who was tragically considered missing for a month before police identified her body in the Hudson River.

“I  just don’t understand what’s happening to these high-achieving kids,” said Aiello’s father, Christopher, to Philly.com. “How did we get to this spot? The whole thing, for me, will never make any sense.”

An A-student at the College, Aiello was weeks shy of graduation and had been accepted to nine law schools when she went missing two days before her 22nd birthday. Police believe Aiello jumped from the George Washington Bridge because they found her purse, cell phone and car keys on the span’s south walkway.

“It’s so normal for anyone who is connected to a suicide or a loss to ask themselves what they missed,” said Dean of Students Angela Chong, who manages the College’s student outreach program. “It’s just really important to remember that every person is different

“College is tough. Many of our students are learning how to be in relationships for the first time … There’s a lot going on during that time in someone’s life. This is not the time to think you can handle it all by yourself.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines suicidal thoughts and behaviors as “psychiatric emergencies requiring immediate intervention.” According to their website, suicide is the most common psychiatric emergency with close to one million Americans receiving treatment for suicidal thoughts, behaviors or attempts on a yearly basis.

Volunteers at Mercer County’s crisis hotline, CONTACT, have been on the other side of many an “immediate intervention.”

CONTACT is a free crisis intervention hotline for people seeking someone to listen, ease their despair and help them share the daily burdens of life. Their website explains their work as “compassionate listening and safety services” that over the past 35 years has saved “countless number of lives that would have been lost to suicide.”

Chong said that there is usually no single defining moment or situation that leads to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Stephanie Menakis participates in the balloon release, part of TCNJ Cares Week. Samantha Selikoff / Photo Editor)
Stephanie Menakis participates in the balloon release, part of TCNJ Cares Week. Samantha Selikoff / Photo Editor)

“No one really wakes up one day and feels like they don’t have any alternatives. It’s a process,” Chong said. “Most students have been dealing with depression or anxiety, or something has been going on for a while.”

The College has tragically seen an increase in suicides on campus in the last two years. Only a year after Aiello’s death, and coincidentally in the same month, Michael Menakis, 18, a freshman playing for the College’s basketball team, allegedly died from injuries sustained by jumping from the top of a school parking garage.

Emily Johnson, a sophomore business management major, was with Menakis the morning of his suicide attempt and said that she didn’t notice anything alarming about his demeanor.

“Even his best friends that he played basketball with said they had no idea anything was wrong,” Johnson said, reflecting on the incident.

“I think second semester his habits got worse, like skipping class and stuff,” she realized in retrospect. “But no one really noticed because it happened subtly and everyone skips class. You’re not necessarily looking at that like it means something or thinking, ‘Oh, wow, he must be really struggling.’”

While it is sometimes difficult to recognize warning signs, Chong explained, “Look for changes in behavior. Drastic change — you’re not just looking for one isolated circumstance or behavior. (You’re) looking for anything that is a change … especially during stressful academic times of the year. It may not be any one thing. It can’t just be up to any one department, one friend, one boyfriend, one anything, to have the responsibility of noticing these things.”

In response to the recent devastating losses, the College has changed its approach to better assist students seeking help.

“The approach has changed so that it’s a community effort,” Chong said. “Our net is wider so that we can have a more holistic picture of what’s going on with that student to discern if we should be concerned or not, because you certainly don’t want to overact and drive a student away from seeking help services.”

Though Menakis had been drinking that night, according to Johnson, she said he was no more drunk than she had ever seen him before. Johnson was with him as early as 3:30 am the morning of his attempt. When she first received a call from one of Menakis’ new fraternity brothers, she was only told that Menakis was in the hospital and had potentially been assaulted.

“The police came to question me and at that point they didn’t really know what had happened, or they just weren’t telling me,” Johnson said. “They asked me if he had ever talked about Madison Holleran who he ran track with in high school. He hadn’t, and I didn’t realize at the time who she was.”

Holleran was a freshman track star at the University of Pennsylvania who graduated from Northern Highlands High School with Menakis. On Jan. 17, 2014, just as her second semester had begun, she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a parking garage in Center City, Philadelphia. Her death was one of five among the Penn student body in six months’ time, including four confirmed suicides, Philadelphia Magazine reported.

It wasn’t until this January that her parents revealed the contents of the note their daughter left behind.

“I thought how unpleasant it was to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in,” she wrote, also leaving behind cookies for her grandparents, chocolates for her father and necklaces for her mother. “I love you all … I’m sorry. I love you,” she wrote.

Her former classmate, Menakis, had just become a member of the College’s chapter of Sigma Pi Theta Delta before he took his own life. Members of the organization were in shock. After his death, Menakis’ fraternity brothers participated in Hamilton’s “Out of the Darkness Suicide Walk,” sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Frankie Parisi, a junior business major at the College who joined the fraternity at the same time as Menakis, said he never saw any signs.

“Mike was just one of the guys, we all loved being around him. I don’t think Mike ever reached out to anyone, which is tough to understand,” Parisi said.

His lack of outreach to his fraternity brothers is especially difficult to understand as the fraternity’s philanthropy is the Sean Vernon Feliciano Amazing Day foundation for suicide awareness.

The “In Memory of Mike Menakis” fundraising page the fraternity created surpassed its goal of $1,000, ultimately raising $1,709. All proceeds are going to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“We have done everything we can to keep his memory alive,” Parisi said. “Aside from our philanthropy, that is probably the most important thing to us.”

Chong has created a task force at the College implementing efforts to help reduce the negative stigma often attached to reaching out for help.

“You just want to make sure that you’re asking, how can every effort and message help protect our students?” Chong said. “How can this be a place that is comfortable talking about this kind of thing, that it eventually reduces the stigma? And that people feel more free to say that, ‘Hey, I’m going through something.’

“I can’t imagine anything worse than someone saying ‘I’m gonna reach out for help,’ but then feeling like that’s wrong or that there’s something wrong with me.”

Less than four months later, Sarah Sutherland, 18, a 2014 Scotch Plains High School graduate and freshman at the College, committed suicide when she jumped from the Route 22 overpass on Park Avenue in Scotch Plains, N.J.

Sutherland’s suicide was a shock to junior Jennie Sekanics, Sutherland’s freshman floor Community Advisor.

“She always seemed happy and was always kind, she was very generous — always one of the first people to offer help,” said Sekanics, an English and women’s and gender studies double major. “I will say that it was evident that she was under a lot of pressure … Sarah was well-liked on our floor and her death affected each and every one of us.”

Like many others who are in some way affected by a suicide, Sekanics has struggled to deal with the loss of her young resident.

“I was very distraught for a long time. I really felt like I didn’t do my job — in my mind, her death was my fault. I had trouble coping with her loss and my guilt,” Sekanics said. “It took a lot of conscious self-love, care and advocacy, but I am here, and I am happy and healthy. I realized I needed to recognize how I cared for myself — what worked, what didn’t and why. It is really important to know what makes you feel good, especially in times of distress, and now self-care is the most important thing in my life… academics following second, of course.” 

It is unknown whether these three students had reached out to the College’s Counseling and Psychology Services center (CAPS), however, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center website explains that “even though most campuses provide low or no-cost mental health services to their students or can refer students to off-campus services, student survey data shows that many students who need help are not asking for it directly.”

The American College Health Association found in 2008 that most students who report being depressed (i.e., screening positive for depression, self-reporting depression diagnoses or symptoms) are not in treatment. One survey, for example, showed “only 36 percent of students who screened positive for depression or anxiety actually received some form of treatment.”

Students walk to raise awareness for suicide and mental health struggles. (Samantha Selikoff / Photo Editor)
Students walk to raise awareness for suicide and mental health struggles. (Samantha Selikoff / Photo Editor)

Most students who die by suicide are not clients of the counseling center, the website explains.

So, what can be done? What is being done?

Chong explains that after the deaths of these students, there was an outpouring from the College’s student body and faculty who wanted to do something to help prevent future suicides and help students seek assistance when needed.

The College’s Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention Task Force, made up of faculty, staff and students, lobbied for two additional counselors in CAPS in order for psychiatrists to be available on campus for 20 hours a week. The task force has also put trainings on for faculty and students to better help break down barriers for students who want to reach out for help.

This past October was the College’s CAPS’s Mental Health Awareness Month. The month began with a Mental Health Screening Day in which students were invited to get a “mental health check up.” Screenings for mood and anxiety disorders, alcohol use/abuse, eating disorders and gambling were available with immediate feedback provided by professional staff from CAPS, Anti-Violence Initiatives (AVI), the Alcohol and Drug Education Program (ADEP) and the TCNJ Clinic.

CAPS Peer Educators (CAPS PE), students who volunteer with the program, hosted several other events for students including “Stigmonolgues” where more than 200 students heard personal stories from their peers about their experiences with mental health issues, stigma and recovery.

New York City author, Josh Rivedal, was brought to campus to present his one-man show, “The Gospel According to Josh,” which narrates his journey through depression and explains how he made it to the other side. Students were able to learn more about how to reduce the stigma, raise awareness and help fellow students struggling with depression seek help.

During the month, CAPS PE brought with them to all events what they call a “Message of Hope” table. They asked students to create and leave hopeful messages for others and then take with them a message that someone else had written.

“The aim was simple: bring a smile and sense of hope to another, while leaving with a bit of hope for yourself,” the group’s website explains.

The influx of messages and positive feedback inspired CAPS PE to create a Tumblr page called TCNJ Unbreakable as a forum to anonymously post positive messages, uplifting quotes and images.

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” a quote from Leonard Cohen added to the page by a student at the College reads. “Behind you are the challenges you’ve met. Before you lie new possibilities. Today you chose the direction of your life,” another student wrote.

CAPS also encouraged students to attend Hamilton’s “Out of the Darkness” Suicide Walk.

Other organizations have also stepped up to help promote suicide awareness. In 2013, junior psychology major Noelle Skrobola and senior psychology major Melanie Wong, along with alumnus Monisha Ahluwalia, opened a chapter of Active Minds with the goal of “increasing awareness of students, faculty and staff at TCNJ about issues surrounding mental health, symptoms related to mental health disorders and mental health resources available both on-campus and in the surrounding community,” the group explained on its website.

The organization has already been recognized by Active Minds, Inc. as a five-star chapter and was nominated for a Road-Runner Award, which is given to a chapter that “hit the ground running on programming, leadership formation and awareness efforts on its campus,” according to the group’s website.

During the Suicide Prevention Month this October, Active Minds set up a table in the Brower Student Center where students could dip their hands in paint, leave prints on the banner and sign their names — metaphorically lending a hand to stop suicide.

“Every handprint represents a person who’s willing to talk to you,” junior psychology major Margaret Pappadimatos, student organizer for Active Minds, told The Signal in an article from the Oct. 1, 2014 issue. “They will talk to you for however long (you) need, as long as you don’t take that final step.”

The Active Minds website has links to resources for students, families and teachers seeking help for themselves or others.

And while CAPS and Active Minds have made significant steps in the right direction, Johnson feels there is still more to be done.

“I don’t think TCNJ or the email directly addressed the issue,” Johnson said, referring to the email alert sent to the campus announcing Menakis’s death. “I know it’s very personal for family and friends, but the community should be aware of what’s happening. And it seems to be a recurring issue at TCNJ, so it needs to be more of a universal topic. If it weren’t such a closed subject, people would be more likely to address it if they were having an issue. It wouldn’t have to only be an internal struggle.”

Sekanics agrees that changes need to be made to the way the College handles the announcement of a campus suicide.

“A death, especially a suicide, is not a ‘special announcement,’” Sekanics said. “Language needs to be better suited and more sensitive to the matter and the communities, and the TCNJ community at large, that it affects.”

Available data from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center suggests that suicide occurs at a rate between 6.5 and 7.5 per 100,000 among college students. More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45 percent felt that things were hopeless. 

The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, likewise, finds that 60.5 percent of students “felt very sad” and 30.3 percent say they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” at least once in the prior 12 months.

The College’s campus community is working to fight against these unsettling statistics. Progress has been made and yet there is so much more to be done.

As Johnson said, “Once it’s done, it’s done. You can’t take it back.”

But, hopefully, with the right action steps, the College will be able to help prevent suicide in the first place and give students the right tools to seek help before drastic circumstances unfold.