A year after she returned from her study abroad trip to Como, Italy, graduate student Amy Quan received a letter telling her a friend committed suicide. Her host family’s only daughter took her own life by throwing herself from the five-story apartment building where they lived. Quan recalled the girl showing signs of depression, but said at the time she was not sure what to do to help.
“I knew her very well and it touched me because I knew about the situation,” Quan said. “I thought I could or should have helped when I knew something was wrong.”
On Aug. 17, Quan, her coworker Mary Viojan and more than 2,900 others will walk 26 miles from Fairfax, Va. to Washington, D.C. from dusk to dawn to spread awareness about the second leading cause of death in college-aged students – suicide.
The first ever Out of the Darkness walk will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The foundation will use the money raised to fund education and prevention initiatives and survivor programs, said Darrel Tucci, AFSP manager of development and fundraising. Founded in 1987, this non-profit organization funds suicide prevention research, education and awareness. The walk was organized by Pallotta Teamworks and is sponsored by DC101.
Quan said she heard of the walk on the radio in early June and became personally committed to its cause. She raised $1,000 for suicide prevention, the minimum amount needed to participate in the walk.
Quan has worked with depression and suicide prevention since high school. As a peer counselor and heard fellow students share their problems about family related issues to weight complexes. Quan studied psychology at Duke University and is enrolled in the graduate human resource development program at GW. She also works at the Faculty Affairs Office at the School of Medicine and Public Health as an executive coordinator.
“It is important that depression gets as much attention as suicide,”said Sallie Mink, director of education at the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association. She said identifying depression is the first step in preventing suicide.
“People only talk about suicide,” she said. “It’s a sexier word than depression. But it is an important part of preventative medicine. You don’t give a girl who’s eight months pregnant a condom.”
Mink said the earlier depression is detected, the easier it is to prevent people from getting worse. The stigma associated with the words depression and suicide often prevent many parents from recognizing the gravity of this disease, Mink said. Students are labeled lazy and sometimes even stupid because they do not put in the effort in their studies.
Mink said she strongly believes education and awareness about depression can help those who suffer from the disease. Funding for awareness of the disease has been rising, but is not as good as it should be, Mink said.
“There is no reason on earth we don’t have more money (for depression research and education),” she said.
At the University Counseling Center, depression is the top complaint, counselor Anne Mauldin said. The center encounters students with a range of symptoms, from tired and tearful to suicidal.
Several factors make college-aged students more at risk to depression, she said. Students are away from family and friends. They have to manage social relationships and the demands of an academic workload on their own. Many other students with family problems are not affected until they are out of the house. The irregular eating and sleeping patterns common in college can worsen depression. Alcohol consumption is also a contributor.
The danger with depression is that those affected by it tend to withdraw from people around them, which is the opposite of what someone in that state should do, Mauldin said. The isolation of college life can lead from depression to suicide.
“For students who feel suicidal, hopelessness is the main indicator,” she said.
The Counseling Center provides counselors for students during office hours. After-hours, a therapist from the center carries a pager in case of emergencies. The therapist can be reached by calling UPD. Those who feel they need to talk to someone can participate in one-on-one sessions with a therapist or try group therapy sessions. The center also has a self-help library for students who feel they are not ready for therapy.
“Students don’t have to immediately be comfortable with therapy, but we encourage them to come in so we can figure out a plan for them,” Mauldin said.
Mary Viojan, who works with Quan at the Faculty Affairs Office, said she feels she has just as much motivation to participate in the walk and promote its cause. A volunteer at a D.C. rape crisis center as a hotline counselor, Viojan continually talks to women who are severely depressed and some who even have suicidal tendencies, she said.
“We need to bring (suicide) out in the open and provide more support to people who think there is nothing else for them,” she said. “It would be good to do whatever we can do. If the walk helps, obviously the more the better.”