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The Times Capitulates on Campus Suicide

Over the weekend I published an opinion piece (Campus Suicide: A Mother Responds) countering a popular New York Times story on campus suicide. I found the Times’s take on campus suicide both disrespectful and irresponsible. And lo and behold, without saying as much, the Times has published two follow-up pieces this week — one by the original author herself — which essentially refute the central claims of the original article.

In the Opinion piece Teenagers, Medication and Suicide, Richard Friedman, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Weill Medical Center states: “At least 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable and potentially treatable mental illness like depression, or alcohol or other drug abuse problems, often in combination. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people and has been rising since 2007. The unidentified killer in this story is untreated psychiatric illness. In 2013, for example, 8.7 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 experienced a major depression episode in the previous year, but only half of them received any psychiatric treatment.”

In a follow-up Q&A in the Times’s Well Blog, Answers About Campus Depression and Suicide Risk Among College Students, the author of the original story, Julie Scelfo, answers the question:

Q: Are there more suicides at elite universities?

A: There is no data indicating that suicide is more prevalent at elite institutions than at two-year or four-year colleges. In fact, college of any kind seems to be a form of protection against suicide, according to Dr. Victor Schwartz, the medical director of The Jed Foundation.

Huh? Wasn’t the whole premise of the original article that the pressures of elite universities was driving students to suicide?

As for the original article’s finger-pointing at “lawnmower” parents?

Q: Are parents to blame for suicide?

A. The cause of any individual suicide is complex, and it would be a mistake to assume parents are to blame if a child attempts suicide. Gregory Eels, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell, who has worked in higher education for 20 years and says he has seen “too many” student deaths, describes it this way: “The causes of a completed suicide are never a single thing. It’s a combination of thousands of things.”

Boy, do I wish Ms. Scelfo had done this kind of reporting before she published the original story. But maybe then there wouldn’t have been an original story. Let’s hope this episode in the Times will mark an end to sensationalist coverage of the sensitive and complex subject of suicide.

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