By Lianna Hubbard
Shane Chase, a second-year FSW student, was driving through Italy on his spring break last year when he received a text. His 22-year-old high school friend had killed himself.
It had been two years since Chase saw Fred (as we will refer to him out of respect for his family), but the boys were close when they attended Fort Myers High School together. In those days, they saw each other every week. Fred spent most of his free time fishing.
“That was the happiest I saw him,” said Chase, “when he was catching fish.”
Fred, a Tallahassee Community College student, was not always so happy in high school. He developed a substance abuse problem and easily lost his temper.
“It was always a dangerous game going out partying with him,” said Chase. “There was a pattern. We go out, Fred drinks too much, and we all have to get him out of a fight.”
In 2017, Fred’s best friend died of an overdose. Eight months later, Fred killed himself after a night out drinking with his younger brother.
Fred is part of the growing number of college age students who die by suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students, according to the Center for Disease Control. The stresses that come with transition into college life and the average onset age of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and substance abuse make college a dangerous time.
“One in five college students contemplate suicide,” said Richard Keelan, a mental health advocate at Lee Health. “It’s an extremely stressful period. Support networks of younger years are gone.”
Just knowing someone who committed suicide, as Fred did, is a causal factor in suicide, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.
Keelan spoke on campus about this issue last semester in Mental Health First Aid presentations to resident advisors, faculty and honors students. He plans more talks for this semester.
“Work on changing the stigma,” said Keelan, “so people can get the help they need. We can create a culture of caring for one another.”
Keelan works on changing this stigma by encouraging students to bring up the uncomfortable question of suicide.
For example, in one of his presentations last semester Keelan instructed a room full of college students to turn to the people on either side and ask the big question: Are you thinking of killing yourself?
“I don’t want the first time you ask it to actually be a situation where someone is suicidal,” Keelan said to students.
Keelan stressed what to do if the answer was ever yes: keep the person safe and contact mental health professionals.
Stigma makes asking that question even more difficult than it already is. It makes answering truthfully difficult too.
“It’s about talking about these issues,” said Keelan. “Get educated.”
FSW is working to provide that education on campus. A Stop the Stigma event on campus last semester was part of a national campaign on college campuses to educate students on mental health issues. More events are in the worksthis term.
Chase ran the booth for the day, handing out Stop the Stigma pins and pencils. His mother, Wendy Chase, a humanities professor, organized the booth.
“This is now an epidemic,” said the elder Chase. “The most important thing to me is stopping the stigma.”
Shane Chase still struggles with mental health issues. He sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis and has tried pharmaceutical and natural treatments, despite never being diagnosed with a specific mental illness.
It didn’t stop him from traveling to Europe this semester while studying at FSW online.
“Mental health is not just for people who suffer from illness,” said Chase, “but something everyone has.”