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11:20 PM March 22nd, 2013

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By: Rafael Castillo M.D., March 22nd, 2013 11:20 PM

We sincerely sympathize with the family of Kristel Tejada, a 16-year-old first year behavioral science student from the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, who committed suicide late last week.

The first time I read the heading of the story, I purposely didn’t read the rest of the story, because this is the kind of news that gives me that glum and down-in-the-dumps feeling. But since it’s all over the media, one gets a full serving of the details of this most unfortunate tragedy.

It’s always easy to look in retrospect and point fingers at people, especially university administrators, blaming them for the untimely death of Kristel, who was blessed with intelligence and physical looks, and who would have likely made a successful professional in her chosen career someday. But as the experts tell us, preventing suicide is not as simple as it may seem it is. “It’s a confluence of so many factors,” says psychiatrist Dr. Paul Lee.

Medically rational

It’s medically rational to assume that even if Kristel was not asked to file her LOA (leave of absence) for failing to pay her tuition, she might have been still a suicide risk. Granting for the sake of argument that the UP problem was the final straw that broke the camel’s back, the predisposition to commit suicide must have been brewing for quite sometime already, and even the least stressful situation could have provided the final straw.

While we empathize with Kristel and sympathize with her family for their big loss, we should also try to put things in proper perspective to prevent more student suicides from happening. We’re just concerned that Kristel’s act might be interpreted by our students as an act of great courage or even martyrdom in fighting for a cause, and that they can consider the same option should they be in a similar situation.

Our teachers and professors at various school levels should discuss the problem of suicide objectively and dispassionately with their students and disabuse any idea in the minds of these students that suicide is a lofty act to do when one can no longer see a clear solution to the many problems confronting a student.

Suicide is one of the top causes of deaths among students. Unfortunately, this problem has not been properly recognized and adequately addressed in most schools. Unless this is recognized as a real and serious problem among students, which requires preventive interventions, I’m afraid we will have many more Kristels in the future.

Proactive interventions

If we want to give more meaning to Kristel’s death, the schools and universities have to focus on proactive interventions identifying students at risk and aggressively collaborating with their families on how to help and treat the student. Thinking that it’s merely a financial issue is actually skirting the issue and won’t really solve the problem of student suicides.

Lowering tuition fees or changing policies on fees may help alleviate the problem, but it’s only a band-aid solution or a knee-jerk reaction, and unless other sustained programs on preventing suicides are done, it won’t reduce the rising incidence of student suicides on the long term.

Students who attempt suicide are actually ambivalent about killing themselves; they are just so confused about what options to take. They have this all-consuming feeling that no one really cares for them or would even notice if they’re already gone. They feel trapped, hopeless, helpless and their minds play dirty tricks on them, making them think that suicide is the only way out of their pitiful situation. For as long as they can be pulled out of their depression and assured that some people still care for them, they are likely not to commit suicide.

Alleviate academic stress

We would like to sound off our call for all schools and universities to have organized programs to alleviate academic stress and worries and all other problems that students are commonly confronted with. A stronger personal mentorship or “Big-brother,” “Big-sister” program can also help provide a strong emotional support for distressed students.

In some schools abroad, they have actually made it part of the curriculum of freshmen students  to understand the root causes of student depression and suicide, and recognize immediately if one has signs and symptoms that can make him or her at risk for suicide.

If we could retrain our minds on the real causes of student suicides and prod our school administrators on institutionalizing programs in collaboration with the students’ parents to prevent it and families, then Kristel’s death shall not have been in vain.

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