Every year, 1,100 college students in America kill themselves. That’s an average of three suicides a day. Most are quiet tragedies that don’t make the evening news.

Cho Sueng-Hui made sure his death would not be a private affair. His suicidal rampage left more than 30 people dead. And it left people asking how the carnage could have been prevented, why the cops didn’t lock down the campus.

I think those are the wrong questions.

Instead of calling for metal detectors and key cards, Americans should be calling for improved mental-health care.

We should be asking how weird and anti-social someone has to be before he’s identified as a danger to himself and others. We should be asking how a severely depressed young man could walk into a Roanoke, Va., gun store and buy a Glock 9-mm handgun.

And in Santa Clara County, Calif., we should be asking why our county supervisors are considering cutting $34 million from the mental-health budget next year and closing four community clinics.

It’s natural in the aftermath of such an unthinkable tragedy to look around for someone to blame. And it’s natural for parents to want to build safe cocoons for their college kids so they won’t have to worry about them.

But folks, I think the problem this tragedy highlights isn’t campus security, it’s campus suicide. If anything positive is to come from the events at Virginia Tech, it will be that our leaders finally commit to providing adequate mental-health resources – on campuses and in communities.

“I kept having to tell myself there is no way we could have known this was coming,” a classmate of Cho’s told reporters Tuesday. “We saw all the signs, but never thought this could happen.”

Studies show that 90 percent of young people who commit suicide suffer from depression or some other mental illness, though most don’t seek treatment. But usually, there are warning signs, cries for help. Sometimes the signs are ignored. Often, worried friends and family members see the signs but can’t find affordable treatment in time.

Melanie Hale sees the problem every day. A counselor at Foothill College, she meets with dozens of students each month who are suffering from depression, anxiety and other problems that are on the rise at American colleges and universities. Lately she’s been concerned about the number of students who are addicted to violent video games.

“They spend hours online, they fall behind in their classwork and suffer from sleep deprivation.”

Sometimes students with problems seek her out. Others are referred by professors, parents or friends who are disturbed by a student’s e-mails, compositions or conversations.

But her office can only offer students a few counseling sessions. She can’t prescribe drugs or provide intensive therapy.

“We have to have places to refer them to,” she said. “But so many services are drying up.”

Suicide is preventable, but long-term treatment is expensive. Most medical insurance doesn’t cover it. And in our area, it’s going to get worse. As part of a massive cost-cutting plan, Santa Clara County is proposing to cut mental health services to 8,000 people – including nearly 800 children and adolescents. The North County in Palo Alto, which is closest to Foothill, would close.

If that happens, where will troubled students get help – before they become desperate?

“We have to maintain our mental health services in the community,” Hale said. “And they have to be accessible to students.”

Otherwise, even if we turn our campuses into fortresses, our students will be increasingly at risk.

Patty Fisher is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Readers may send Fisher e-mail at pfishermercurynews.com.


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