On Sunday, Brenden Tiggs, an 18-year-old African American student at San Jose State, committed suicide in his dorm room. According to local media, his dad did not believe the coroner’s ruling, because his son was doing well and seemed happy. While it’s a topic we often don’t like to talk about, suicide rates for young men in the United States are especially troubling.
Four times as many college age men commit suicide as women: In 2005, suicide rates for women ages 15-24 was 3.5 percent per 100,000; for men the rate was 16.2. Of course, the tragic loss of a young man who had such a bright future ahead of him is more than a statistic.
In 1996, while sitting in the Juvenile Justice Commission of San Francisco, I was the lead investigator and writer for a report looking into the suicide of Aldo M, a 16-year-old ward who had been placed in a group home. Aldo M had been found hanging in a closet by a counselor in his group home. He was an immigrant who had no family in the United States and he spoke only Spanish.
Although he had a history of suicidal thoughts or attempts, Also M was placed in the group home without any suicide watch plan. Initially, the group home had Spanish-speaking staff, but over the course of several months staff that spoke only English replaced all of these people. So, this suicidal young man, with no local family, soon lived in a group home where he had no one with whom he could speak. I wanted to make sure no one forgot Aldo M and we learned something from his tragic death.
Perhaps SJSU will also learn something from Brenden Tiggs. Although he was African American, 90 percent of suicides in ages 15-24 are Caucasians. However, from 1980-1995, suicide rates for African American males in this age group increased by 214 percent. In 2005, young white men had a suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 people, compared to 3.7 for women. Meanwhile, African American young men had a suicide rate of 11.5 percent compared to 1.7 percent for African American young women.
While young men commit suicide four times as often as women, women try to take their lives more often. Young woman are three times as likely as men to attempt suicide, they just don’t succeed as often.
The bottom line is young men have a high suicide rate and colleges and high schools need to develop training and programs that address suicide risk factors and prevention. Mental illness and depression, along with alcohol consumption, are leading risk factors for suicide. Students who live in dorms are at increased risks because they are away from home for the first time and can sometimes feel isolated.
I hope Brenden’s tragic death will be a wake-up call for SJSU’s administrators to take a closer look at their mental health and suicide prevention services.
Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this post listed the rate of suicides amongst men and women as percentages, as reported by an outside website. That reported rate should be in reference to suicides per 100,000 people.