8 suicides over year shock UM College Park deaths are first since '85

July 08, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

An 18-year-old freshman jumps to his death from a dormitory window. A 22-year-old woman drinks a toxic laboratory chemical and dies. A 27-year-old part-time student shoots himself in the head on graduation day.

They were just three of the eight students at the University of Maryland in College Park who killed themselves during the last school year, according to a campus official. There were also 33 attempted suicides by College Park students.

The number of deaths shocked officials on the campus, which hadn't had a suicide since 1985, said Dr. Don Moss, director of campus mental health services.

Officials at several of the state's other big colleges -- including Towson State University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the Johns Hopkins University -- said they knew of no student suicides last year. Towson State officials reported having only four suicides in the last 25 years.

Julie Perlman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, said she had not seen any recent upsurge in campus suicides.

Flurries of suicides in a college, high school or geographic area "will sometimes just happen," Ms. Perlman said. "You'll sort of have a blip on the statistics."

At College Park, the first student to kill himself was Adam Spillman of Gaithersburg, 18, who jumped out of his eighth-floor dormitory window in October after an argument with his girlfriend, according to campus police.

Elaine Miriam Kasper, 22, killed herself in February by drinking a small amount of acrylamide, a form of acrylic acid. She had transferred to College Park in 1991 and lived with her parents in Montgomery County.

Friends said part-time student David Ben Froehlich, 27, who shot himself on graduation day, was depressed about the recent death of his father and the uncertainty of his own plans.

Dim job prospects and a slumping economy may have created special pressures on students this year, Dr. Moss said. Six of the eight students were upperclassmen and thus closer to leaving school and looking for jobs, he said. Seven of the eight deaths came during the second semester.

"I think we've seen more depressed students this year," Dr. Moss said. "I think the times are not propitious for students leaving the university entering the job market."

Only one of the eight College Park students lived in a campus dorm. The others lived either off-campus or in a sorority, Dr. Moss said. "It can be a lonely place and it's easy for people to get lost here," Dr. Moss said. "Especially if you just come onto campus and take a course and leave."

College Park, the state's flagship public campus, had nearly 35,000 students enrolled last fall. About three-quarters live off-campus.

Officials say they have a better chance of noticing and helping suicide-prone students who live on campus. Student advisers in each dormitory are trained to spot warning signs, Dr. Moss said. Only one of the students had been receiving on-campus psychological counseling, he said.

A parent of one of the students complained to campus officials "that not enough had been done here" to prevent the suicide, Dr. Moss said. He declined to name the parent.

Dr. Moss said officials across the College Park campus, including academic advisers and faculty members, should look more closely for suicide signs.

Among college students nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death, behind accidents, according to the American Suicide Foundation in New York.

Researchers find it hard to count college suicides in part because it's hard to define them. For example, if a depressed student leaves school and kills himself at home, that may not count as a college suicide, said Dr. Alan Lipschitz, associate research director for the New York-based foundation.

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