Surge in deaths leaves College battling reputation as a “suicide school”

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October 19, 2010

12:50 AM

Over the past 43 years, 13 students have committed suicide while attending the College of William and Mary. Three of those have occurred in the past eight months.

Throughout its recent history, the College has battled a reputation for being a “suicide school.” It is unclear how the reputation developed, and until this year it had been five years since the community was marred by such a tragedy.

“Numbers don’t tell the human story, but it does help combat the claim that William and Mary is a suicide school,” Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06 said.

Whitney Mayer ’13 was found early Friday morning near Lake Matoaka. Authorities said that Mayer passed from an apparent suicide. In April, Ian Smith-Christmas ’11 took his own life in Virginia Beach. The body of Dominique Chandler ’10 was found by police in a dorm earlier that semester.

In each case, Ambler notified the College community in an e-mail.

“There’s no way to predict, they are random,” Ambler said. “When you’re dealing with human tragedy, it’s not a time to discuss numbers.”

According to statistics cited by the College, there are 11 suicides for every 100,000 adults aged 18-24 annually.

“Calling these events an epidemic may create the image of a contagious event in which there was some factor about [one] suicide that led to another, but there may not be evidence of that,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson Gail Hayes said in an e-mail. “The term ‘cluster’ is an unusual aggregation, real or perceived, of health events that are grouped together in time and space.”

Ambler said that, despite recent events, the College is not and has never been a “suicide school.”

“Although these three incidents, with three individual students, are not related … it is not uncommon for, where there is a suicide, for there to be copycats, for lack of a better word,” Ambler said. “I think the most important thing is for us to talk openly about this issue.”

She added that the College has actually had very few suicides until recently.

A medical and emotional emergency protocol is in place to assist students in need of help. That protocol is constantly being reassessed and improved, Ambler said.

Current services emphasize prevention and include educational training of resident assistants and faculty to identify students who may be in need. HOPE, the Student Health Center and the Counseling Center are all available resources to students seeking assistance in coping with stress or depression.

A representative from the College’s Counseling Center could not comment at press time.

Ambler said that last year’s reorganization and reallocation of funds has created one permanent full-time position and another half-time position at the Counseling Center.

A case manager was assigned to the Dean of Students office to assist in efficient dispersal of care and resources.

“There is a national trend across the country with more students seeking counseling than ever before,” Ambler said. “We are always looking at how we’re getting our message out about prevention.”

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