Addressing suicide among college students

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Christopher Aiello broke into tears - again - when he got a call last month about Madison Holleran, a promising scholar-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania who jumped to her death from a Center City parking garage, stunning her family, friends, and campus community.

The call came from a friend, who in an eerie coincidence, knew Holleran’s father. Aiello lost his own daughter, Paige, the same way nine months earlier.

Tennis team captain and an A student at the College of New Jersey, she was weeks shy of graduation and had been accepted to nine law schools when her body was recovered from the Hudson River.

“I just don’t understand what’s happening to these high-achieving kids,” said Aiello, a New Jersey lawyer. “How did we get to this spot? The whole thing, for me, will never make any sense.”

Two recent suicides at Penn and a smattering of others at college campuses over the last year - including a student who jumped off a parking garage at Pennsylvania State University in December - has brought renewed attention from administrators and talk on how to ramp up prevention and awareness.

Penn last week announced intentions to hire three new staffers for its counseling center and expand hours.

“This whole issue is a tragedy on our campus and on many campuses,” said Drexel University president John A. Fry, who formed a suicide-prevention task force last year after the suicides of two students. “I wanted to make sure we were doing everything that we could.”

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students.

And when popular, high-achieving students, who seemingly have everything to live for, take their lives, it sends nothing short of a shock wave through their campuses and leaves families and friends grappling - even years later - for answers.

“You won’t really know what triggered this in anybody,” said Donna Ambrogi, whose son Kyle, a Penn football player, killed himself in 2005. “That’s the hardest part for families.”

Ambrogi, a Havertown nurse, started a foundation to raise money for suicide-prevention programs in high school and college.

‘VULNERABILITY’

When a student commits suicide, it’s often the result of multiple factors, said Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director for the Jed Foundation, a New York-based suicide-prevention group aimed at college students.

“It’s more often personal- and family-relationship disruption,” he said. “In many cases, alcohol or other substances are involved.”

College age, he said, is also the time when many mental illnesses, including depression and schizophrenia, surface. Up to 90 percent of suicide victims have a diagnosable psychiatric condition, he said.

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