Each year, suicide kills more than 1,000 college students in the United States and ranks as the second-leading cause of death for young people. The losses range from those who struggled for years with serious mental health issues to successful athletes and campus leaders who appeared to lead happy, healthy lives.
Regardless of a youngster’s personal history and emotional exterior, quick and easy access to a skilled mental health professional can mean the difference between life and death, experts agree.
To help reduce college-age suicides in New Jersey, on Monday Gov. Chris Christie signed a measure that requires all higher education facilities to ensure trained mental health experts are available to help suicidal students, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The law, which received nearly unanimous support in the Legislature, requires schools to notify all students of this resource within the first two weeks of each semester.
The law honors Allendale native Madison Holleran, a star student athlete and scholar who took her life in January 2014, during her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. Holleran was 19 and had not exhibited outward signs of depression before she started college, friends and family members said after her death.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that New Jersey continues to have one of the lowest suicide rates, but the numbers here are rising faster than the national trend, according to figures from 2014, the latest available. Nationwide, there were 13 suicides for every 100,000 people that year; in the Garden State, there were 8.8 per 100,000, but that represented a 13 percent increase over the 2008 rate.
Neither the Association of American Colleges and Universities nor Active Minds, a national advocate for campus mental health with chapters at a dozen New Jersey colleges, collect data on suicide policies at higher education institutions. (Active Minds plans to start tracking the issue soon.)
Dr. Kelly Posner, founder and director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project, a part of the Columbia University Medical Center, suggested the new law, the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, is unique. “New Jersey has set the example for other states to follow,” Posner said in a statement released by Assemblymen Republican sponsors of the bill. “Our research shows that asking someone if they are thinking of suicide can save a life, and now students in New Jersey will have professionals who they can reach out to in times of crisis. “
Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Passaic), who introduced the proposal last year, thanked the Holleran family for their contribution and praised the governor for approving the final plan. While the bill first required schools to have a professional available in person at all times, with input from higher education officials and health advocates the measure was amended to also allow mental health experts to consult with students by telephone from a remote location, if a caregiver is not available onsite at the time.
“Although we cannot erase the pain of losing a child to suicide, we can prevent the future loss of life by providing college students who are struggling right now with access to lifesaving support, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” O’Toole said. Nearly three out of four suicides in New Jersey is committed by someone of college age, he said.
The new law requires institutions of higher learning – which generally applies to all colleges and universities, including community colleges – to ensure that they have in place healthcare providers with mental health training and experience who can focus on preventing and reducing suicides among students. If not stationed on campus, these professionals must be reachable by phone, video chat or other technology.
These experts must also work with faculty and staff “on ways to recognize the warning signs and risk factors associated with student suicide.” College officials are required to email contact information for these professionals to all students within the first 15 days of each semester.
“Appropriate intervention can be a life-saver for young people who feel stuck in a dark place with no way out,” said Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Passaic), a lead sponsor in that house. “It is crucial to have skilled experts prepared to identify at-risk students and provide communication to help them cope with their challenges, feelings and anxiety.”
Assemblyman Dave Russo (D-Bergen), another lead sponsor, said that professional expertise is critical when it comes to students like Holleran, who may not appear vulnerable to mental illness. A graduate of Northern Highlands Regional High School, Holleran played soccer, tennis, and ran track, which she continued at Penn; she was close with her family and childhood friends and regularly posted happy-looking pictures on social media.
“It is difficult to identify students who are at risk. There may be no obvious signs that a young person is struggling, depressed or contemplating suicide,” Russo said. “They can appear happy and full of life, and that’s what makes the tragedy so heartbreaking and the need for trained professionals so vital. Ensuring that mental health resources are readily available on campus will help save young lives from a desperate, irreversible mistake.”