The suicide rate among college-age men is increasing at an alarming rate, officials say, but even as schools work to head off the problem, counselors are baffled as to the cause.
"We don't know for certain," said Kristi Casey-Hart, a counselor at Dalton State College in Dalton, Ga. "I think that we put a lot of pressure on men."
While men overall commit suicide more often than women, the gender gap for suicide among young adults is staggering, according to a recent report published by the Boys Project out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Among 20- to 24-year-olds, 20.7 suicides per 100,000 occur among males, compared with 3.5 per 100,000 among females, said Judith Kleinfeld, director of the Boys Project.
The ratio of suicide among male and females between the ages of 15 and 24 was 5 to 1, she said, and the male and female ratio for that same age range in 1933 was 1.56 to 1.
"The most compelling evidence of a 'boys crisis' is the overwhelming gender gap in suicides," the report states. "While the suicide rate of boys has always been higher than that of girls, current gender differences are alarming."
It's difficult to get a grip on the number of suicides among college students in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Colleges and universities aren't required to report suicides or attempted suicides in their campus crime statistics -- which are given to the U.S. Department of Education -- because they aren't considered crimes under the law.
A male student at UTC committed suicide two years ago on campus, school officials said.
In August 2008, UTC student Zach Leamon, 22, was paralyzed on his left side after shooting himself in the head while in the apartment of an off-duty UTC police officer. The gun belonged to the officer, who has since been fired, school officials said.
School and police officials have not said whether the incident was suicide or an accident but have said the gunshot was self-inflicted. Relatives of Mr. Leamon insist he wasn't trying to kill himself.
Sam Bernard, chairman of the Governor's Advisory Council for the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, said theories about the gender gap in young adult suicides discount the cultural pressures facing many college-age men.
Many young men become overwhelmed by their newly forged adulthood and struggle to establish their identity once living on their own, he said.
"In this day and time, with the current economic situation and pressure on young folks to perform at a higher level, the increase in pressure to perform more and better can be cited for (the suicide rate among young men)," he said.
While men complete suicide at a much higher rate, women attempt suicide more often, he said. Men gravitate toward violent, no-return means for suicide such as shooting themselves with a gun, Dr. Bernard said, and men typically have more access to lethal weapons than women.
Women generally gravitate toward medical overdoses or cutting their wrists, slower methods of dying that, in some cases, can be stopped if caught in time, making the attempt more a cry for help than an actual suicide, he said. Some counselors also argue that women use these methods for the sake of vanity, he said.
"If (men) are going to attempt suicide, they will pick a method that will ensure death," Dr. Bernard said. "Females don't want to mess themselves up so they can be presentable in a coffin."
Although the numbers of college suicides in the Chattanooga area is low, local counselors say they are trying to be vigilant about identifying at-risk students.
As the economy has worsened and students struggle to find jobs or pay for their education, officials say the number of students seeking help for depression and anxiety has increased.
Nancy Badger, assistant vice chancellor of student services at UTC, said staff and residential assistants have just finished a yearlong training in questioning, persuading and referring students at-risk of committing suicide.
"This is what you need to know to keep people alive in terms of their mental health," she said.
Ms. Casey-Hart said Dalton State mental health counselors want to make sure the influx of students with depression doesn't snowball into something fatal.
The college will begin offering student housing for the first time this fall, and Ms. Casey-Hart said officials are training staff and student workers to spot the warning signs for suicide. They are being told to look for students that are isolated or withdrawn, show significant changes in behavior, talk about death or give away prized possessions.
Still, both counselors said one of most important jobs is to ask the obvious questions: Are you thinking about suicide? Are you planning on killing yourself?
"It's a hard thing to ask because it seems so personal and intrusive, but for the person you are asking, it may be their life line," said Ms. Casey-Hart. "Chances are they don't want to die. They just want their pain to stop."
* Talking about suicide, death, and/or no reason to live
* Preoccupation with death and dying
* Withdrawal from friends and/or social activities
* Experience of a recent severe loss (especially a relationship) or the threat of a significant loss
* Experience or fear of a situation of humiliation or failure
* Drastic changes in behavior
* Loss of interest in hobbies, work, school, etc.
* Preparation for death by making out a will (unexpectedly) and final arrangements
* Giving away prized possessions Previous history of suicide attempts, as well as violence and/or hostility
* Unnecessary risks; reckless and/or impulsive behavior
* Loss of interest in personal appearance Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
* General hopelessness
* Being faced with a situation of humiliation or failure
* Unwillingness to connect with potential helpers
Source: Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network