NEWS

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March 4, 2003

University stirs in wake of recent student death

The flag hung at half-mast outside the administration building yesterday in remembrance of second-year in the College James Koehn, who committed suicide. Koehn was discovered in an off-campus apartment at 3:30 on Friday afternoon, and later coroners confirmed that the apparent cause of death was suicide.

Koehn's death touches many people in the University community. Koehn participated in University Theater and was actively involved in both Linn and Dudley Houses, the residence halls where he lived in the fall and winter quarters, respectively.

"These kinds of sad events can lead to dismay and confusion for many people," said Susan Art, dean of students in the College. "It will take time for [James's] close friends and even others who didn't know him to take in the event, accept it as actual reality, and process their feelings about it."

House meetings were held in both Linn and Dudley on Friday night to alert students of the tragedy and offer several counseling options. Staff from both the dean of students office and the student counseling center were on hand to give immediate emotional support and educate students about the resources that exist at the University where they could receive additional counseling.

"When any community experiences this kind of loss, it's obviously very sad, but we must turn our attention to those people who are left behind that are in great distress," Art said.

This suicide, the second in three months, highlights a number of troubling questions facing the University and the nation at large. According to the American Federation for the Prevention of Suicide (AFPS), suicides involving college students have doubled among women and tripled among men since 1950. In the past 10 to 15 years, college suicides, once relatively equivalent to the national average, have begun to outpace the mean of all American citizens who take their own lives.

College suicide came to the forefront of media attention last October, when the National Mental Health Association released a report in conjunction with the Jed Foundation highlighting many disturbing patterns of suicide on American college campuses. According to the report, 1,088 students commit suicide every year and 95% of them display noticeable signs of mental illness.

While many students believe that the University is unique in the number of suicides that occur each year on campus, the number of suicides at Chicago is relatively consistent with the national average.

"The national average of suicides is between 1 and 2 for every 10,000 people," said Thomas Kramer, director of the student counselor center. "For a student population of about 12,000--I'm not sure exactly--the amount of suicides seems to match the average trend."

Three students have committed suicide in the past two years at the University, but other schools, though larger, have experienced a comparable number of similar tragedies at certain times in their history. Five years ago, Michigan State had six student suicides within a four-month span.

Yet many students still assert that the pressure-filled intellectual environment of Chicago is connected to a more consistent trend of suicides at the University.

"While there is no one thing that causes suicides, students know coming here that they will be in a high-pressure environment," said Bernadette Donodan, president of Tunnel Lights, a suicide prevention organization on campus. "It's dark, it's cold, it's gloomy, and students work very hard and don't pay attention to their mental or even physical health."

Clinicians and administrators seem to agree, in spite of this stigma, that suicide is a sporadic event that occurs as a result of deep psychological trouble, not the pressures of schoolwork.

"The reason people commit suicide is that they have major psychological issues, not normal problems with stress that most people experience," Art said.

Kramer concurred. "It's very important to note that when we're talking about suicide, we're dealing with something that is enormously unusual," he said, adding that the infrequency and severity of the problem makes identifying and treating students at clear risk very difficult.

"As a concerned clinician, I want to help people fight depression and aid people who aren't feeling good about themselves. That's our main goal," Kramer said.

The University has a variety of resources to help students diagnose and treat the fundamental problems that can lead to suicide. During the next week, all residence houses will be holding meetings to address the recent suicide and give students information about these resources.

The University has also speeded up the process for Tunnel Lights--founded earlier this quarter to educate students about suicide prevention--to become an official RSO, allowing them to distribute pamphlets in the Reynolds Club next week in the face of regulations of the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities.

Students are encouraged to contact the student counseling center any time they feel the need for assistance. Although regular business hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for appointments, students have access to 24-hour help in the event of an emergency. The University maintains an on-call psychiatrist at all times, and students can be seen immediately if they believe they are in trouble.

The Maroon will publish an obituary for James Koehn in Friday's issue.