January 28, 2007

Seek Help, Stanford Urges After Apparent Suicide

By Mike Swift, Lisa M. Krieger and Rodney Foo, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Jan. 28--Stanford Professor Bruce Wooley opened Friday's lecture on circuit design with a lesson about a more important set of connections.

"If you feel stress -- and we all do, and sometimes it's positive -- say it to somebody," he told his students. "Find a friend. Talk to your research supervisor or any faculty member. Anybody, just so it doesn't build inside."

"They heard me," Wooley, the genial chairman of the university's renowned department of electrical engineering, said later, discussing the apparent suicide of Stanford graduate student May Zhou. "But do they actually believe me? Who knows. They put so much pressure on themselves. Things are very different than when I went to school."

As with other apparent suicides of supremely talented students at many other U.S. universities in recent years, the death of 23-year-old Zhou resonated through Stanford's campus last week.

Police in Santa Rosa, where Zhou's body was found in the trunk of her car, said Saturday that although they continue to suspect she took her life, it might be weeks before a final determination. If her death is ruled a suicide, Zhou would be the second Stanford student to take her life this month, and at least the fifth since summer 2005, according to police reports.

Stanford efforts

Stanford last fall launched a Mental Health and Well Being Task Force, in response to what Greg Boardman, vice provost for student affairs, called "the increasing prevalence and complexity of student mental health issues nationally and at Stanford." In an e-mail to Stanford's student body Friday, Boardman urged students to take advantage of university's network of peer and professional counselors.

"Our main concern lies with (Zhou's) family and friends," Boardman told students, "as well as with our students, staff and faculty."

On average, three U.S. college students take their lives every day, according to the Jed Foundation, a non-profit that works to prevent campus suicides. That is half the suicide rate in the same age group in the general U.S. population. "College campuses are protective against suicide, and that's why the rate is lower," said Dr. Morton Silverman, a Chicago professor of psychiatry who co-authored a 10-year study of suicide at Big Ten universities.

He points out that most college students get free mental health care and that 90 percent of those who commit suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.

Silverman also said suicide is not more prevalent at elite schools such as Stanford, where competitive students are in a pressured environment many call "The Bubble."

Yet many studies have shown that one suicide in a community can prompt others. Silverman said the risk is considerably higher for female graduate students in the sciences.

Grad school pressure

In a 2004 University of California-Berkeley survey, 45 percent of sample grad students said they experienced emotional or stress-related problems and 10 percent had considered suicide during the previous 12 months. Women reported hopelessness, sadness and depression in far higher percentages than men.

"Graduates . . . are in debt, they often are coming back to school after having left school, so there's those types of adjustments," Silverman said. "They are concerned about employment at the end of all this, and there's also relationship issues."

Although there are more suicides among white, black and Latino women in the United States, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Asian-American women in their early 20s, a higher rank than for other racial groups, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

There is no evidence that family or academic pressures contributed to Zhou's apparent suicide. But college is a tension-filled experience for many Asian-American students who are fulfilling their immigrant parents' expectations.

"The pressure is immense," said Lynda Yoshikawa, a staff psychologist at San Jose State University. "Often times, the choice of a college major and a career is highly influenced by their parents. So it is quite possible for Asian-Americans to get into careers that are not quite a fit for them, but they feel very pressured to stay in that career."

Another problem in fighting suicide, said Dr. Joanna Locke, of the Jed Foundation, is the stigma of even talking about it.

"It's very hard to tackle a health issue when you can't have an open public dialogue about it," Locke said.

Although Stanford is lit with concern, students don't necessarily relish discussing mental health issues. "You're smart enough to get into Stanford, so any sort of deviation that calls into question your mind, the thing that got you here, is, like, wait, there's something wrong with you," said Aliyya Haque, a senior pre-med student. "At Stanford, we're all overachievers, and you see a problem and you want to fix it. . . . Mental health isn't something you can easily solve; that's something I think students find disconcerting."

Universities' roles

Meanwhile, advocates say universities need to do more.

"These kids are not yet full adults and shouldn't be treated that way," said Mary Ojakian of Palo Alto, whose son, a UC-Davis physics major, committed suicide in 2004. Now, she and her husband work to prevent additional campus tragedies by urging universities to be more supportive and nurturing to students.

"Legally, because parents do not have access to the medical records of their child after age 18, they may not have any idea of what is going on," Ojakian said.

Yet suicide is an act where every answer leads to a question, as it appeared with Zhou's death.

Her father, in the San Diego area, who said he is sure Zhou did not commit suicide, said she had been working on her resume. How would that square with erasing her future?

She was in the second year of her doctoral program, and her academic pressure should have been easing. How would that square with academic pressure leading to her suicide?

"She would drive herself," said Martin Teachworth, one of Zhou's high school teachers. "She always knew what she wanted to do."

Mercury News Staff Writers Jessie Mangaliman and Brandon Bailey contributed to this story. Contact Mike Swift at [email protected] or (408) 271-3648.


Copyright (c) 2007, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

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