Most suicides are related to mental health problems. VOA Producer Zulima Palacio reports that even though research indicates that most mental illnesses are first manifested during ages 15 to 25, only a few universities have established prevention and mental health programs. Narration by Kathie Scarrah.
It has been five years since Alison Malmon's brother committed suicide. She is now 23, independent, and a graduate in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. But her brother's death forever changed her life.
She immersed herself in research, first on suicide, then on mental illnesses. Of her findings she says, "What I found out when I researched was that what my brother went through was not unique. That 75 percent of people with schizophrenia, become ill between the ages of 15 and 25, the college age."
She also found out, that there was very little or non-existent help at colleges for someone with mental problems. "Yes, he got help. The problem is he got help three years after he became sick. He was completely desolated, in isolation, so lonely, so helpless for three years.”
Motivated by her own experience and hoping to be able to help other youngsters in time, Alison created a student group and soon after that, a website known as Active Minds on Campus, which includes extensive lists of students to contact through e-mail.
Speaking to a group of college students, "My name is Alison Malmon, I am the founder and executive director of Active Minds which is a mental health awareness organization for college students."
Conferences, awards and a quick expansion of her program to other universities quickly followed. She filled a gap in students' information and involvement in mental health issues. "We have 19 chapters now and they have all started by students or staff that have contacted us, saying I want to bring this to my campus.”
Alison says that every time she shares her story with college groups like this one in Maryland, people come to her with stories of their own.
Nelbariz Reyes, 18, from Gettysburg College, was in this meeting. She suffers from depression and had been considering suicide. "I felt like nobody wanted me on campus, I didn't belong there, I felt like I didn't belong home either, I was just out of place. I felt my energy was going down.”
In the last decade, researchers have made considerable advances. But there are still many unknowns. In the U.S. there are more suicides than homicides, says Dr. Ilanny Berman, Executive Director of the American Association of Suicidology. He says, "For the most part more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder, depression being most common, but not the only mental disorder; schizophrenia, substance abuse, alcohol and drugs."
Dr. Berman says that more than 16 percent of the population suffers from depression. When that is combined with drug experimentation and/or binge drinking of alcohol, the results can be fatal. Scientists also know that while women think about suicide more, and attempt it more, death from suicide is more common among men. One reason is firearms.
"Having an accessible weapon increases the likelihood that that weapon will be used by the person who wants to die," says Dr. Berman.
Suicide has a strong genetic component. According to Dr. Berman, "We have some genetic, some biomedical research and what is called social modeling research that if a parent has been suicidal, there is a greater likelihood one or more of their children will be suicidal."
But as Alison says, if the person affected receives timely information, mental illnesses can be treated. The rapid expansion of mental health programs for universities as well as her Active Minds website could lead to a decline in the high number of students committing suicide.
"Ideally, not only will Active Minds become the voice of young adults but it will be the driving force behind breaking down stigma and raising awareness," says Alison.
And still today, the stigma associated with mental illness continues to be one of the major obstacles in the way of suicide prevention.