They look like every other college student on campus. They go to class and walk through the halls carrying books and backpacks. They smile at friends and acquaintances. Family and friends may sometimes notice that they are becoming increasingly quiet, distant and melancholy, but for the most part, no one realizes something is amiss until they’ve already taken their own lives.
This is the story of many young suicide victims today, and the number of college students who commit suicide is steadily increasing, according to the National Mental Health Association. Each year, nearly 5,000 people between the ages of 15 to 25 take their own lives; it is the third leading cause of death among college students.
The GCC community is not a stranger to this tragic reality. Unknown to many, two GCC students have committed suicide in the past seven months. The details of both deaths have been shrouded in secrecy; friends and members of the college community who knew the victims have kept most of the information confidential, and their families could not be reached for comment.
Raya Belcheva, a 22-year-old nursing student, died in November last year. She was in her last semester in the nursing program and took her own life a few weeks before her would-be graduation.
“Our entire class wishes we knew what triggered it,” said Lizette San Miguel, one of Belcheva’s classmates; she trained with Belcheva in a hospital’s intensive care unit the week of her death. “She was under the same pressure that we all were. We were all baffled by what happened.”
San Miguel said that Belcheva’s friends and classmates noticed that she had seemed quiet and “lost” several days before she died, but when her classmates asked, she merely attributed her gloomy disposition to exhaustion.
“I always asked her what was wrong, and she always replied that she was tired,” San Miguel said. “We were all very tired, so I didn’t think too much of it … I didn’t realize she meant she was tired of life.”
San Miguel and Belcheva’s other classmates said that she was doing very well in class. Despite being the second youngest of the group, she was one of the top students.
Another former classmate, Mary, dedicated a MySpace blog entry to Belcheva: “I’m going to miss this sweet, bright, smart, innocent girl. I remember her collection of shoes from bright orange to blue and her warm smiles…She was helpful and very appreciative to everyone. We were a family in a small class. We watched out for each other and supported each other through stressful times.”
“Raya was very curious, innocent, and excited about taking care of patients,” San Miguel added. “She would’ve made a wonderful nurse.”
The second victim was also a nursing major who had just been accepted into the program and was in her first semester. She died March this year and has not been identified.
A friend of the victim who refused to be identified said that she had suffered from depression, and this was exacerbated by academic pressure.
“I don’t think it was because of grades though,” said the anonymous source. “She was doing well [in class] … in fact, her grades were pretty high.”
Although nursing students acknowledge that their classes are stressful and require a lot of hard work, they are also quick to point out that the reasons behind both deaths have nothing to do with the nursing program, and added that both girls were doing well academically.
Nursing instructor Cynthia Dorroh also said that both cases were “very closely investigated;” the investigation apparently showed that the deaths were not triggered by “school reasons.”
According to psychology professor Jessica Gillooly, this is not the first time suicide has claimed the lives of GCC students. “There’s probably been three or four other [suicides] over the past four years,” she said. “It’s never actually happened on campus, but these students were all enrolled [at GCC].”
Gillooly said that depression is the biggest risk factor among suicide victims; this clinical condition plays a role in almost 90 percent of all suicides. “They can’t imagine that things will get any better. Some of them suffer a loss and are so distraught that they don’t think they can live any longer.”
The American Association of Suicidology (AAS) says that friends, family, teachers and coworkers should be concerned if a student talks about committing suicide and death, withdraws from friends and social activities, stops coming to school or work, loses interest in his or her personal appearance and gives away prized possessions.
“I thought she was just tired of school,” said San Miguel, referring to Belcheva. “If we only knew [that she was considering suicide], we could’ve helped her to find meaning in the life she was so tired of.”
A person who has had recent severe losses such as a broken marriage or relationship, death in the family or financial difficulties, and has attempted suicide before, is at a higher risk of committing suicide.
Crescent Orpelli, a mental health counselor at the college’s Health Center, said that among the students she has talked to, common stressors that trigger depression and suicidal thoughts include career indecision, family issues, relationship problems, the search for identity, pressure from parents, financial insecurity, grief and loss, acculturation, and academic pressure.
“There are multiple stressors,” Orpelli said. “Students go through a lot of stress, and we want to be able to give them skills to manage that.”
Orpelli mentioned that in some cases where she has counseled extremely stressed-out students, “it gets intense. They may have a lot of very severe problems and are on the verge of suicide.”
Some students have seriously talked about wanting to end their lives, and in these cases, Orpelli and the health center have contacted the persons’ families as well as the authorities to guarantee that the students would not hurt themselves and ensure their well-being.
For every suicide, six to 10 family members and very close friends are immediately affected, according to the AAS.
Belcheva’s close friends are still trying to cope with the tragedy of her death seven months later. “I sometimes reminisce about that dreaded month,” San Miguel said. “Something so tragic happened when we were supposed to be celebrating a major accomplishment in our lives. A lot of us in her class closed the door [on that part] of our lives.”
Survivors of the more recent suicide find it even more difficult. “It’s just so hard,” said one of her friends. “We know we have to leave it behind, but it’s not easy.”
Dorroh said that the nursing department has “taken measures” to help the suicide victims’ classmates, as well as the other nursing students, cope, and part of this is encouraging them to seek counseling at the health center.
The center offers mental counseling services for students who need help coping with stress, depression and other mental/psychological conditions. Individual counseling is offered, as well as conjoint sessions wherein students are encouraged to bring in family members and deal with issues as a group.
“We want to help them identify stressors and build a skill set to deal with problems,” Orpelli said.
Orpelli said that with counseling, many students have become more successful in dealing with life issues. “We definitely see progress,” she said. “We see students do better in relationships, school life, friends … They are able to manage moods, discover resilience and incorporate healthy strategies for daily life. They are able to deal with depression.”
These counseling sessions have proven helpful to friends and classmates of the suicide victims. The sessions also seek to help others on campus who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Gillooly said that “anything that overwhelms the psyche” can push a student to commit suicide.
“A person can only take so much, and sometimes life dishes out a lot,” said Gillooly. “Remember, though, that there is always help, and with help, tomorrow will look brighter.”