Can ‘Duck Syndrome’ Help Explain College Suicides?

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Student walking on Campus
Photo: Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis

For obvious reasons, college can be a difficult time for kids who are susceptible to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. In addition to living away from their family for the first time, many college students are suddenly faced with heaps of social and academic pressures they’ve never been through before. It’s a climate that can exacerbate any preexisting problems and, in the worst cases, lead to suicide. But are there specific aspects of modern college culture that heighten the risk of self-harm.

That’s one of the questions asked in a sad, interesting New York Times article by Julie Scelfo following Kathryn DeWitt, a seemingly happy and successful 20-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania who has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. DeWitt was shocked when she found out that Madison Holleran, then a fellow freshman at Penn, killed herself in January of 2014. “In a blog post soon afterward, Ms. DeWitt would write: ‘What the hell, girl?! I was supposed to be the one who went first! You had so much to live for!’”

Part of the reason women like DeWitt and Holleran feel such profound stress, writes Scelfo, is the pressure put on them not only to achieve, but to achieve in a way that appears effortless:

Soon after Ms. Holleran’s death, Penn formed a task force to examine mental health on campus. Its final report, issued earlier this year, encouraged the school to step up outreach efforts, expand counseling center hours, and designate a phone line so that anyone with concerns could find resources more easily. It also recognized a potentially life-threatening aspect of campus culture: Penn Face. An apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed, Penn Face is so widely employed that it has showed up in skits performed during freshman orientation.

While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.

Scelfo points to technology as an aggravating factor here, quoting one counselor who “believes social media is a huge contributor to the misperception among students that peers aren’t also struggling.” It’s bad enough to be exhausted at the end of a day of classes, stressed out about a calculus problem you don’t understand; it’s worse when you log onto Instagram and it seems like all of your friends, both on your campus and others, are living perfect lives. It’s easy to see how this could contribute to a feeling of loneliness and helplessness.

It’s important to put all of this in context: While there’s been a modest increase in the suicide rate among 15-to-24-year-olds since 2007 (a group that includes many people who aren’t in college), there isn’t any real sign of a historic upswing in the suicide rate. That said, there’s striking recent research that suggests social media can increase the number of social comparisons a user makes, and therefore reduce their happiness. It’s not far-fetched to think that social media, as useful a connector as it can be in certain instances, can have some unanticipated side effects as well.