The death of a Suffolk University student who jumped from the 11th floor of a campus building and the suicide of a Yale student last week have renewed longstanding concerns about mental illness among college students and prompted calls for heightened awareness of often subtle signs of distress.
“We don’t need to wait until the flags are all red,’’ said Alison Malmon, executive director of Active Minds, a national group seeking to increase students’ awareness of mental health issues.
“There doesn’t need to be a threshold to cross to reach out to someone,’’ Malmon said. “If they seem to be struggling just a bit, go talk to them.’’
Eric Christo, a 22-year-old senior finance major at Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University, had made the dean’s list and was expected to graduate in May.
About 9:30 Thursday evening, awitness who saw Christo falling called 911. Christo’s personal effects were recovered on the 11th floor overlooking the street, law enforcement officials said. There were no signs of a struggle, and a police report describes his death as a suicide.
“All of the Suffolk community sends its deepest condolences to Eric’s family and to all those who knew and loved him,’’ university president James McCarthy wrote in e-mail to students and employees. Friends and family of Christo could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Last week, a freshman at Yale University also died in an apparent suicide. Zachary Brunt of Alexandria, Va., was found dead in a physics lab. Last fall, two MIT students committed suicide in two months, and after a previous string of suicides at the school, the university increased its mental health services and made a special outreach effort to students.
An estimated 1,100 college students commit suicide each year, and the vast majority have an underlying mental health disorder at the time of their death. But immediate circumstances also play a role, and the uncertainty around leaving college can deepen the strain.
“Students face a lot of pressure, especially as the school year is winding down,’’ Malmon said. “Not knowing what the future holds can be a sign of hopelessness for people.’’
Surveys have shown worrisome levels of stress and anxiety among college students. A 2011 survey by the American College Health Association found that 45 percent of college students and almost half of female students had “felt things were hopeless’’ at some point in the past year. More than 16 percent said they had felt that way in the past two weeks Thirty percent had “felt so depressed it was difficult to function.’’
Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, a national suicide prevention group, said college students appear less likely to commit suicide than their age cohort as a whole, even as severe mental illness becomes more common among college students.
“Schools in the past 20 years have made a lot of progress in expanding mental health services,’’ he said. “But the demands have increased, and we’re always playing catch-up.’’
The suicide rate among college students does not appear to be rising, although it is not formally tracked, Schwartz said. But the foundation urges heightened awareness of potentially troubling behavior.
“Things that are often easy to see can be warning signs,’’ he said. Students who abruptly stop attending class, change their sleeping habits, or take less care in their appearance could be experiencing emotional strain, he said.
Saturday morning, college student Wendy Chang, an English major from California, was discovered dead in her dorm room at Harvard. Authorities have not released details about her death, but said it is not considered suspicious.
The medical examiner’s office said a cause of death would not be made public until later this week.
Chang, 22, was a talented and “deeply creative’’ student who had recently completed an honors thesis, the dean of the college wrote in e-mail to students.