A stark statistic has emerged after a year marked by tragedy.
Since the beginning of last year, eight GW students have died either on or off campus, and seven have been men. Experts say college men more often engage in riskier behavior than women and may be less likely to ask for help with mental health issues.
Three male students have committed suicide since January 2014, though it is not clear whether they reached out for help before their deaths. The third suicide, which took place in November, was confirmed by the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner last week.
And with a high number of male student deaths on campus, it puts GW and its counseling center in a tough position that many colleges have faced but few have mastered: Pinpointing the people at risk and being on top of the situation without blowing up the issue.
Nadine Kaslow, a professor and the vice chair for faculty development in Emory University School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said schools can teach students how to keep an eye on their friends and speak up if it seems like someone “is having a hard time.”
“Some of the students may be active and engaged and people say, ‘I had no idea they were struggling so much,’” Kaslow said. “Others may have been isolated and harder to reach in those groups because the challenge is they’re not as connected.”
Two male freshmen committed suicide on the Mount Vernon Campus last spring. A woman, who was a senior, also committed suicide last April. Second-year law student Gregory Levine committed suicide this November.
In a letter to parents following the suicides last spring, University President Steven Knapp reminded them that GW has a sweeping support system in place to help students. The University added permanent counseling services to the Mount Vernon Campus this fall.
“I want to make sure you are fully aware of everything we are doing to respond to these devastating losses and to ensure that all our students are receiving the help they need in dealing with them,” Knapp wrote at the time. “Please know that the well-being and safety of our students is very important to me.”
At vigils last spring, parents of the students urged their children’s friends to reach out if they need help – to call their parents, take care of their classmates and remember that they are never alone.
“Be strong for each other, and please, when you have a feeling that someone might be in distress, please reach out, even if it means calling their parents and they never speak to you again after that, it’s worth it,” the mother of one of the students said at a vigil.
But experts said that college campuses can also offer communities for men, who may connect through sports teams, clubs or fraternities. Those groups can give school officials a chance to make sure men are also learning about resources and looking out for each other, Kaslow said.
“It has to come from peers encouraging each other and in social groups where male students often are,” Kaslow said. “It come from spaces where males gravitate.”
Director of the University Counseling Center Silvio Weisner declined to say how GW specifically works with male students or whether GW had plans to create additional programming focused on mental health for male students. He also declined to say whether he thought men were less likely to reach out for help.
Weisner said in an email that staff in mental health services consider gender when assessing suicide risk. Staff also look at factors like substance abuse, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship or a stigma about asking for help to “develop individualized treatments,” Weisner said.
Suicide is four times more likely to occur among men than women: Men make up about 80 percent of all suicides in the U.S., according to a 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women are more likely than men to have suicidal thoughts, the report found.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 18 to 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Gregory Eells, the director of Cornell University’s counseling and psychological services, said men are also more likely to complete suicide attempts than women because they often use more lethal means.
After Cornell University had six male suicides in the 2009-2010 academic year, the university’s president released a statement about his own mental health struggles and how he benefited from getting help.
Eells said schools can partner with student groups and build messaging campaigns with male role models like faculty or athletes to talk about suicide prevention. He said it’s all about “finding creative ways to reach men where they are.”
Two years ago, the NCAA Sports Science Institute created a mental health awareness campaign that included interviews with athletes from the University of Michigan about asking for help and receiving treatment.
“It’s easy to underestimate the power of role modeling or creating places where people men respect can be role models to communicate messages,” Eells said. “If you have male faculty saying, ‘It’s important you get help,’ [it] can be useful.”
Victor Schwartz, the medical director of the Jed Foundation, an organization that advocates for suicide prevention at universities, said many men may think that asking for help goes against the gender roles they’ve learned.
“There’s the old joke about men not wanting to ask for directions if they’re driving. It’s harder for men in our society to admit they have difficulties and need help from another person,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said men who are struggling may not display traditional behaviors that seem like depression and could instead “get into the system through disciplinary issues.”
Three other male deaths over the past year were accidental, with causes ranging from a motorcycle crash to a drug overdose. A fourth student, law student Mark Lee, was found dead in his Columbia Heights apartment in December, though the D.C. medical examiner’s office has not yet released a cause of death.
Schwartz said men are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, like drug and alcohol abuse. About a quarter of college men used illicit drugs compared to about 19 percent of college women, according to a 2013 national survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Junior William Gwathmey, who died of an accidental overdose in September, was also the third student in as many years to die from a lethal mix of drugs.
Drug overdose death rates have more than doubled nationally between 1999 and 2013, according to the CDC.
Darcy Gruttadaro, the director of the child and adolescent action center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said schools should also talk about risks that college students face because “young people always think that’s someone else not me.”
“When colleges and universities talk to students about things like risk, they still think that could happen to someone else. They hear, ‘Blah blah blah,’” Gruttadaro said.
She said those conversations could also include a discussion about mental health, and officials should tell all students – not just men – that asking for help “doesn’t suggest you’re a lesser character.”
“It shows strength to step forward,” Gruttadaro said.