A little more than a year ago, Devon Minor disappeared from the campus of Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Penn. Local police officers and college employees spent weeks searching for the freshman engineering student on the 55-acre campus and in the surrounding town before winter snow and ice made further searching impossible. A little more than three months later, on May 5, workers at a nearby dam on the Beaver River discovered Minor's body, about three miles from where he should have been taking his first end-of-year final exams.
Minor's death was ruled a suicide by drowning, although his family disputed the finding, suggesting he fell into the river by accident. Questions about what really happened to Minor remain, but his death helped raise awareness of the need for more visible campus counseling services and better training for student support staff about the signs of depression and anxiety.
As the rate of mental health issues among college students rises, school administrators across the country are searching for ways to persuade troubled students to seek help before they become desperate. Prevention is key, experts say, but few students who need help actually ask for it.
A 2010 study conducted by James C. Turner, executive director of Health Services at the University of Virginia, shows suicide to be the second most common cause of death among 18- to 24-year-old college students.
Like Geneva, many colleges and universities have responded to the increased rates of mental illness on campus by hiring more mental health professionals and extending their hours of availability. But fewer than 20 percent of the students who committed suicide used the counseling services at their schools, making the biggest challenge encouraging at-risk students to seek help in the first place, said Anne Haas, research director at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"The students who are most at risk often have barriers that prevent them from using those services," Haas said. Reticence may be due to bad experiences with counseling in the past, concerns about confidentiality of counseling within the college or university, fear about parents being notified or uncertainty about what effects counseling may have on future academic or careen goals, she said.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention encourages schools to use online assessment tools that allow students to get information about depression and other mental health problems that might lead to suicide, without feeling embarrassed about seeking help in person. The program developed by the foundation, now in use at 42 colleges, targets students who otherwise might not seek help and connects them to their school's onsite counseling center.
At Baylor University in Waco, Tex., counselors take a more personal approach, using a program called Question, Persuade, Refer to train faculty staff and students to recognize signs of depression and mental illness.
"Historically, one of the problems has been that students are not coming to counseling centers first," said Jim Marsh, director of the Baylor Counseling Center. "They're going to go to their roommate or friend."
The school wants that roommate or friend to refer a troubled student to the counseling center 100 percent of the time, Marsh said.
Every semester, Marsh spends one morning at chapel talking about suicide. He also speaks to groups of incoming freshman about depression, anxiety and other suicide warning signs. Every time he stands in front of a group, Marsh asks students to raise their hands if they know someone who's either attempted or committed suicide. Those who do far outnumber those who don't, he said.
"We just need to talk about this," he said. "It's sort of the thing no one wants to talk about."
At Geneva College, no one knew Devon Minor was struggling with anything that might cause him to commit suicide. Friends and family described him as something of a loner but said they knew of no personal problems. School officials confirmed his grades were good and said he was not in any trouble.
But in a cryptic message posted on his Facebook page just before he went missing, Minor said he had a problem no one could help him with.
As part of the school's increased emphasis on suicide prevention, administrators urge anyone with personal concerns to seek someone to talk to, even if they don't go to the counseling center right away.
Amy Solman, head of Geneva's counseling center, encourages students to talk to resident directors in the dorms, whom they probably already know and might have talked to about other issues. Solman also urges students who are worried about a friend to seek help, even if their friend doesn't want it.
"Do not try to handle the situation alone," she said. "You have to act on that concern. If someone confides [in a friend], there's a part of them that wants to live."