The Nexus examines causes, warning signs & how to help anyone struggling with possible mental health issues

Sixteen years ago, UCSB student Matthew DeMarco lost his 15-year-old half-brother to suicide and depression. Two years later, his father — a successful Los Angeles businessman — contracted a life-threatening illness but ended up taking his own life before the illness could.

With his life forever shaken by suicide, DeMarco has struggled as a victim of bullying and childhood schizophrenia in the months and years following his father’s death. Eventually, the thought of killing himself began creeping up on him as well, and the third-year economics major said he began having suicidal thoughts in the earliest years of his adolescence.

“I was made fun of a lot. My life was just going to hell and I thought, ‘This is happening to me at 13, 14 years old. What about when I’m 28 or 35? If I can’t deal with the stress at 14, how am I going to deal with it when I’m 35?’” DeMarco said. “I just thought about killing myself.”

But DeMarco’s story isn’t an isolated one. Two UCSB students committed suicide just last year alone, and UCSB Student Health reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. A 2011 report by the American College Health Association says roughly seven percent of UCSB students have reported seriously considering suicide, and 16 percent of these students said they felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.

The causes behind suicide and the stories behind every life lost to it are not so simple, however. According the National Institute for Mental Health, individual suicides almost always involve a combination of factors such as social isolation, a family history of suicide, incarceration, a history of family violence or exposure to firearms during one’s upbringing.

Furthermore, Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said 90 percent of people who die from suicide have diagnosable and treatable illness such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

“Therefore, treating these illnesses is an important part of reducing suicide, but the approach must be comprehensive,” Harkavy-Friedman said.

According to Harkavy-Friedman, such an approach includes addressing the wide range of factors that influence one’s struggle with suicide, as these can include causes that are environmental or related to mental illness.

“Suicide is a complex behavior that arises out of the coming together of many risk factors, both internal and in the environment,” Harkavy-Friedman said. “Each individual and members of different age groups experience different types of stressors. Nonetheless, mental illnesses in combination with other risk factors are key.”

The presence of mental illness is strongly related to genetics, according to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) psychologist Janet Osimo, who said poor mental health can make one especially susceptible to suicidal tendencies.

“If you have someone in the family with mental illness, then genetics can make an individual more vulnerable,” Osimo said in an email. “Vulnerability escalates relative to [both] stress in the environment and an individual’s capacity for stress.”

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control reported that suicide was the third leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24, accounting for 20 percent of all deaths annually within that age group. In light of these statistics, Dr. Victor Schwartz — medical director of Jed Foundation, a non-profit aiming to prevent suicide and promote emotional health of college students — said young people may be slightly more vulnerable to suicide due to the tendency for young people to be more impulsive. Sometimes, Schwartz added, substance abuse can also be a problematic factor in the occurrence of suicide in younger age groups.

“Sometimes it is an impulsive act,” Schwartz said. “Sometimes, with younger people, they don’t really appreciate the finality of a mistake, of doing something that’s dangerous to oneself.”

However, Schwartz also said being a college student could potentially lower one’s chances of committing suicide, in part due to the relative lack of firearms on college campuses and the support services offered by university health departments.

“It appears that being in college might be protective or that the cohort of people who are attending college are at a slightly lower risk for suicide than non-college attenders,” Schwartz said.

College students may also be better positioned for good mental health, according to Schwartz, since the experience of reaching higher education is a goal that requires a considerable amount of energy and positivity.

“On the sociological front, people have suggested that being in college … you are in a better place sociologically — that you have more hopefulness, you have more connections, you have maybe more of an optimistic sense of the future.”

Fortunately, according to Osimo, suicide leaves warning signs. Before carrying out a suicide, Osimo said an individual may reach out and say something to someone they know. They might talk about death, wanting to die or being in unbearable pain, and they may express feeling like a burden to others or display extreme mood swings or other changes in functioning.

“One thing we tell people to look for — if they are trying to figure out if something is going on — is to see if there is a big change in behavior,” Osimo said. “If you can’t remember any of the warning signs, listen to your gut. If you think something is wrong, we don’t need you to know what’s wrong; we don’t need you to diagnose it. You don’t have to fix it: Just get them to someone who can help.”

When looking out for warning signs, Harkavy-Friedman said people must keep in mind that mental health needs carry great variability amongst different groups of people, particularly for students.

“At any age, it can take time for individuals to seek help and then, even when one seeks help, the path to wellness may not be direct,” Harkavy-Friedman in an email. “For students, declining grades, social withdrawal, sleep changes, aggression, irritability, impulsiveness and substance use may be red flags.”

According to Debbie Fleming, senior associate dean of Student Life, while the two suicides during the last school year are “extraordinarily rare” occurrences on campus, two is far too many for one year at just one school. In response, UCSB launched the “Say Something” campaign on campus in October of 2013, a suicide prevention outreach effort encouraging students and faculty to seek help or take action if they or someone they know is struggling with thoughts of suicide.

The campaign takes a two-pronged approach to addressing suicide on campus. The first is to reach out to students who are themselves struggling with suicide and encourage them to “say something” to someone and get help. Osimo said students should always seek help, even if suicide is not on the forefront of their mind, as she said statistics have shown that people “get better quicker if they come in sooner when distress occurs.”

“A lot of people feel like they need to wait until something is a crisis to come in for help,” Osimo said in an email. “We are really trying to tell students that it doesn’t need to be a crisis to come in and talk to a counselor. In fact, it’s better to come in earlier. … As they say — come early and often.”

Despite the adage, most people who die by suicide have not seen a mental health professional, according to Osimo. Instead, they often wait until things are too serious — maybe even fatal — because they believe they can manage the problem themselves.

The second part to the “Say Something” campaign targets the bystander: Friends are encouraged to speak up on behalf of those they perceive are struggling with suicidal thoughts. They are told to take great care when approaching someone about suicidal behavior, such as not panicking and not “minimizing” the situation, according to Osimo.

Also, when friends do reach out, Osimo said they should be careful of certain negative tendencies such as arguing with suicidal individuals about the benefits of living, as she said it is often too late for such reasoning to be effective.

“Once somebody gets to that point, in their mind they’ve thought about every avenue. This is really a last resort for them, and they’ve already had that argument with themselves and they have had in their mind a number of failures,” Osimo said. “When you get to that point, it’s almost like you have blinders on: You can only see one solution, and that’s all that is left for you.”

Gladys Koscak, a mental health specialist with CAPS, said suicide is less about wanting to die and more about seeking a cessation to one’s pain.

“Most people who have attempted suicide don’t actually want to die. They just see it as their only option because they want the pain to end,” Koscak said. “So I think at that point, too, it’s so much less philosophical and moral of an issue than it is about them just really wanting to end the pain that they are feeling.”

According to both Osimo and Koscak, the “Say Something” campaign has attracted positive feedback and a fair amount of support so far. About 27 Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District buses have attached a “#saysomething” hashtag or suicide prevention hotline somewhere on the bus. An Apple and Android smartphone application was also created in light of “Say Something,” with it acting as a tool to help students and faculty receive additional resources and information on suicide prevention.

Despite their success, the program currently faces potential cutbacks. By Feb. 3, CAPS must collect signatures from around 4,000 undergraduate students as well as 400 graduate students in order to put an initiative on the Spring ballot allowing for the continuation of CAPS’s suicide prevention efforts. Osimo said as of Jan. 24, 1,500 signatures have been collected.

As for students like DeMarco, they were fortunate enough to overcome their struggles on their own. DeMarco said in the end, he simply had to let go of suicide as an “answer” to his problems. But, he advises students who currently have suicidal thoughts to not ignore it and not be afraid to talk. He also said he believes parents play a major part in watching out for their children and should closely observe their child’s behavior.

“Don’t ignore the problems — that’s the biggest issue. And if you see bullying, do your best to stop it,” DeMarco said. “Talk to them because suicide is permanent.”


A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, February 5, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.