The apparent suicide of 21-year-old Nicholas Moya last week ratchets up the tally of University of Pennsylvania students lost to suicide to an astonishing 14 in just four years.
That Moya, a former president of the campus’ historically Jewish Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, had just embarked on the start of his last year at Penn makes the tragedy all the more incomprehensible.
The official obituary for the Radnor High School graduate noted that he died “after a long battle with depression.” When seen in the light that more than half of the clients of college counseling centers have severe psychological problems — while anxiety and depression are the most common mental health ailments affecting students — it begs the question: Who at Penn, or at Temple, Drexel, Villanova or any of the other colleges and universities in and around Philadelphia, will be next?
As a Penn alumnus and a father, it’s a question that keeps me up at night. As an American, I find it sobering that a staggering one in 12 college students in the United States makes a suicide plan and that, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the No. 2 leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 34.
Surely, more must be done to stem the rising tide of our young people being convinced that the best option to deal with whatever of life’s challenges they’re facing is to end life itself.
Years ago, Congress thought it had a solution by requiring private health insurance plans to cover mental illness at a parity with coverage of physical illness. Many insurance plans expanded mental health coverage, co-payments to therapists became equalized with those paid to physicians, and special deductibles for mental health treatment became a thing of the past. But look at the map of mental health practitioners across the Delaware Valley and you’ll see that finding those that actually accept insurance is no easy task.
Despite a national conversation on suicide spurred by such programs as Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and the death three years ago of Penn freshman Madison Holleran, we unfortunately remain a society where there’s little compunction in seeing a doctor for a cold that last more than two weeks, but a lasting stigma for seeking help with depression that can last months.
After Holleran died, Penn responded by increasing the staff at Counseling and Psychological Services and expanding the center’s hours. The university now stresses to incoming freshmen the importance of recognizing warning signs among themselves and their friends. And yet, nothing and no one was able to stop Moya when he needed it most.
Maybe the problem is one of resources. For a society that has devoted gobs of money to curing cancer — Penn, for instance, is one of the coordinating campuses of the nation’s Cancer Moonshot program — are we devoting enough to mental health?
Maybe the problem is one of parenting techniques. We’ve spent generations instilling in our kids the need to succeed, but seem to have de-emphasized the need to develop a sense of self and independence. Maybe it’s one of values.
In all probability, the problem is all of that and more. And lest anyone think that it only affects our young, it turns out that middle-aged men — a demographic I myself am approaching with each passing day — make up the largest increase in suicides nationwide.
Research suggests that those with a tight-knit social network, whether of family or friends, are less likely to attempt suicide and have better outcomes when facing failure and other challenges. It’s not the number of people who you surround yourself with, but the level of support and commitment they can provide that matters.
As a nation, we demonstrated the power of humanity when we responded — with money, with time and with physical effort — to the devastation wrought in Texas by Hurricane Harvey. We must also do so when confronting the current and potential devastation wrought by mental illness. Doing so will require no less effort than that expended in and around Houston; we should start by refocusing our attention on those around us, our family members, our friends and our communities.
In the struggle to succeed and in imparting our values to our children, we must never forget that life itself has an innate value infinitely greater than the value placed on accomplishment. Let’s make sure our loved ones understand that.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]xponent.com.