USM deals with 4th student death

Published 3:17 pm Friday, November 13, 2009

This has been a semester of tragedy for the University of Southern Mississippi with the fourth student death since August reported Sunday.

Authorities said Isaac Taylor, 20, a junior from Florence, was found hanging from the second-floor railing of his apartment around 1 p.m. Sunday. The death was ruled a suicide.

His death follows the suicide of USM walk-on punter Peter Wilkes, 18, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Tennessee home in October.

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The two other student deaths were LeJulia White, 19, of Camden, who died in an automobile accident in August and Savannah Smith, 21, who drowned in a student residential community pool in September.

Meanwhile, the search continues for a missing Steven Clay McGehee, 21, who disappeared over the weekend. McGehee, a freshman from Horn Lake, was last heard from last Friday by way of text message. He was reported missing by his roommate.

“We’ve gotten a lot of phone calls, but none that tell us where he is right now,” USM campus police chief Bob Hopkins said.

Investigators say McGehee could have traveled to either Horn Lake in Desoto County or near Bruce in Calhoun County.

Vice President for Student Affairs Joe Paul said that occurrences of suicide are rare for the university.

“It’s an unusual situation and a sad situation, “ he said. “Unfortunately the suicide rate of young people, particularly young males, is increasing, not just on college campuses, but across the country.”

About 1,100 college students across the nation commit suicide each year, according to data from the USM Student Counseling Services. It’s the No. 2 killer of college students after accidents.

Deena Crawford, director of the Student Counseling Services, said many factors such as academic stress, family stress and substance abuse lead students toward depression and anxiety.

She said that nationwide statistics indicate that 1 in 10 college students have suicidal thoughts.

USM psychology professor Mitchell Berman, who studies intentional self-harming behavior, said his research indicates an even higher percentage of college students with suicidal thoughts: about 1 in 3.

When it comes to turning thought into action, Berman said that there can be a contagion effect that triggers multiple suicides in a short space of time.

“When people read about or see these things in the media, some researchers believe that there is an imitation or copycat effect that encourages people to act out on these reports,” Berman said.

Berman said the research is not universally accepted.

Crawford said USM has several resources to identify students who might harm themselves. They include a full-time psychiatrist and fully staffed counseling center, as well as the CARES program, which encourages students, faculty and staff to refer at-risk students to mental health services.