Students find emptiness at Big Apple's core

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am

New York

It is always perplexing when a young person who seems to have so much to live for commits suicide.

This is certainly the case with New York University student Pranay Angara, whose body was found in his dormitory room on November 9. He suffocated himself with a plastic bag after leaving a note to his family and pushing a dresser in front of the door. Why he did it is not known, but it is difficult to fathom why a middle-class 19-year-old from upper New York state who was in his second year at one of the nation's top universities was pushed over the edge.

His death came only 18 months after NYU freshman Allan Hunter, 18, jumped from the top of his apartment building in downtown Manhattan after a fight with his ex-girlfriend. Eight students from the university have now committed suicide since 2003.

Suicide is the second biggest cause of death among college students in the US, with about 1,100 taking their own lives every year, according to the Jet Foundation, which works to prevent student suicides.

What puts NYU in the spotlight is the number of incidents in recent years and the fact it is the university which high school students most want to attend.

Its unique urban setting, surrounded by some of Manhattan's hippest neighbourhoods, is a big part of its charm, but perhaps also what can make it a nightmare.

In the online community, students, parents and alumni point out that the school's open-style campus, its isolated, apartment-style dormitories and its lack of sports and other activities make it harder for students to fit into college life and may have contributed to some of the tragedies.

In his 2005 documentary The NYU Suicides, filmmaker Adario Strange even suspected that Washington Square Park, around which many university buildings are arrayed, might have something to do with the problem. The park was a cemetery for slaves and criminals in the 18th century, at one stage a public execution ground, and in more recent times a hangout for drug dealers and addicts.

Joanna Loche, of the Jet Foundation, rejects the explanation. She doesn't think NYU's location should be blamed.

'The main risk factor for suicide is untreated mental illness,' Dr Loche said. 'Social isolation is a factor too, but that is not necessarily unique to an urban campus.'

The university apparently agrees. Since 2003, NYU has launched a 24-hour hotline to put students in need in touch with mental health professionals. It also installed plexiglas windows in the library building, blocked access to the balconies of some high-rise dormitories and put security guards on rooftops.

University spokesman John Beckman insists its location has never been a negative. 'When we recruit students, there are two main ideas that we convince them of - NYU is not for everybody. It is for people who want to be in an urban setting,' he said.

Still, for young people just out of high school, even those who are prepared, the transition is not easy.

'The school is in the city. That's the best thing about it, but at the same time it makes it more difficult,' said arts junior Dustin Lee. 'There is no real community, you are really forced to be independent.'