By Sean Carroll | July 27, 2009 9:08 am

Last week, members of the Caltech community received a dreaded piece of email: a student had taken their own life. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that this was the third Caltech student to do so in the last year.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students. In the aftermath of such an event, there is a feeling of powerlessness; you try to console or sympathize with anyone who might have known the student, but at the end of the day there’s no much you can do. But it is possible to take some steps to try to prevent such tragedies from happening.

It is believed that, in over 80 percent of cases, people who attempt suicide are struggling with some form of mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Although there is no way to know for sure whether someone is contemplating such a drastic step, there are certain warning signs, including severe depression and changes in mood or habits. Caltech has set up a website on preventing suicide and violence, which goes over some of the signs and ways that a friend can take steps to help persuade someone from going too far:

I’m sure that many universities (and companies) have similar resources; it’s worth taking a minute to familiarize yourself with what’s available where you work or go to school.

Most importantly, if you’ve ever contemplated suicide yourself: don’t do it. That’s cheap and easy advice, but the crucial point is to make sure you stop, talk to people, and take advantage of counselors. Being a college student can be an extraordinarily stressful and pressure-filled time; if you’re feeling overwhelmed, be assured that it’s not just you, and that it is possible to get through it. You will find people who are willing to listen, understand, and try to be helpful, if you are willing to reach out to them. Tough times can be overcome, but taking a life is irrevocable. Seek help before the pressure gets to be too much.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Humanity
  • Sili

    Presumably part of the problem is losing the social network when one goes to uni – assuming this was an undergrad.

    In my case – well, I didn’t commit suicide – the lack of supervision during my post grad made it too easy to isolate myself and lose tuch with … well, everything.

  • tacitus

    One other piece of advice—when you hear someone talking about killing themselves (e.g. “Sometimes I just feel like ending it all”), take them seriously. It’s all too easy to brush off such talk as unserious (understandably, the people hearing it don’t want to believe it could be true), but in many cases it really is a warning sign that the person who said it is going to attempt suicide, and soon.

  • USS Kevin

    Modern society has created so many isolated people who feel alienated and alone with their issues it is a wonder this hasn’t happened more often.

    And if we don’t have people who outright destroy themselves, we have millions with maladjusted personalities.

    So when and how does this end, or do we just wait for Soylent Green to come along and solve these problems?

  • lester

    I thought you were in favor of euthanasia, Sean. Suicide is just a form of self-induced euthanasia. Besides, if you tell someone not to commit suicide, you might as well tell a pregnant woman not to commit an abortion. Both involve the killing of a human life.


  • tacitus

    I thought you were in favor of euthanasia, Sean. Suicide is just a form of self-induced euthanasia.

    How pathetic. Taking a serious matter that’s wrenched at the hearts of Sean and his colleagues, and attempting to score a cheap political point from it. You should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself.

  • Sean

    I am in favor of letting people end their own lives, if it’s done in a responsible way — plenty of consultation, help of a doctor, verification that the person is mentally capable, and so on. Typically that would be relevant for people with terminal medical conditions or living with extreme and incurable pain. Whether you agree with that position or not, it’s very different than a lonely college student killing themselves in their dorm room, as I hope most people would recognize.

  • Allyson


    I think some of the problem, especially among highly competitive people in highly competitive fields is that it becomes so difficult to ask for help. People think it makes them appear weak. They worry about being locked away somewhere, ruining their lives, and then choose death as the better solution.

    It’s so hard to get help in those circumstances. I wish there was something I could do.

    Also, if I ever have an abortion, I’m naming it Lester.

  • tacitus

    Sean, lester knows there is a huge difference between suicide and euthanasia (unless he really is as dumb as a rock). As I said, he’s simply trying score a cheap political point (and missing by a mile).

  • My Reference Frame

    Its very important to educate people about what to look for, especially students, and then take signs seriously. Often people aren’t as together as they appear to be.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    Very sad to hear this. At least, however, it was not hidden and Caltech has at least taken steps to make its community aware and informed as to what to look for and what to do. When I was in graduate school at UCSC, sudent deaths from all causes were kept under tight wraps, which I my mind prevented even the chance to learn from them – terribly unfortunate, since many of them were so avoidable.

    I do wonder a bit about the timing of this most recent suicide. Caltech would not be in session now, thus many of the peer-support mechanisms, at least, would likely to be absent for those sticking around the campus for summer research jobs.

  • Giotis

    “It is believed that, in over 80 percent of cases, people who attempt suicide are struggling with some form of mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia”.

    Yes it is believed. Isn’t that convenient? Don’t blame the anthropophagous, misanthropic way societies are organized but blame the individuals and call them basically crazy. Who fabricates these statistics anyway?

  • Greg

    I’m a grad student at Caltech, and wondered about this a bit. I didn’t know any of the students personally, but it’s still scary when this kind of thing goes on around you. And three in a few months seems like a really high number.

    I talked to a good friend of mine who happens to be a counselor, and he said that actually groups of suicides are a decently well understood phenomenon. In any community there is always a certain number of people who are on the edge, and something as emotionally charged as a suicide (or multiple suicides) in the community (especially a small community) is frequently enough to tip more of them over.

    I don’t think it helps that this school (in my humble opinion) tends to over-emphasize intellectual development and waaay de-emphasize social and emotional development. Granted it is kind of a self-selected community, so there’s no great way to fix that, except maybe for those of us who think these issues are important to talk about them more. I suspect that if more people understand what’s going on and why we need to make the extra effort to pay attention to those around us for signs of distress (as well as what the signs are), it could do a lot of good. Kudos to Sean for starting the discussion!

  • lester

    “I am in favor of letting people end their own lives, if it’s done in a responsible way ”

    Sean, are you in favor of having someone decide whether a little baby who hasn’t been born yet die, instead of giving him/her a chance to live? If you feel that there is value in the life of a lonely college student (as I do too), why don’t you feel that there is value in the life of an unborn child?

  • Mark


    Thanks for this. As someone who struggled with depression as an undergrad and is now switching schools for grad school, it is important for me to remember there are mental health resources available.

  • Analyzer

    If you feel that there is value in the life of a lonely college student (as I do too), why don’t you feel that there is value in the life of an unborn child?

    Simple. A fetus, before it is viable outside the womb, is not a human life.

    Are there any harder questions on this quiz?

  • Sean

    This thread is not about abortion.

  • lester


    I’m not trying to score a political point. I dislike politics. I’m talking about a moral point.

  • tacitus

    No, you were derailing a thread about a very serious topic.

  • Qubit

    You see that yawning precipice? It leads to liberty. You see that flood, that river, that well? Liberty houses within them. You see that stunted, parched and sorry tree? From each branch, liberty hangs. Your neck, your throat, your heart are so many ways of escape from slavery… Do you inquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein of your body.

    Seneca, De Ira, 3.15.3-4

    Suicide is not always an act of choice! Its imposibile for anybody to imagine whats its like, unless you’ve stood there on that precipice.

  • tacitus

    I think you’re right, Qubit. I have been depressed, seriously believing I was going to die from ALS. I consider myself to be a rational person, not prone to believing in things without evidence, but nothing my doctors, friends, or family told me could dissuade me of my belief I was going to die a horrible death.

    Fortunately I was never suicidal, but I only snapped out of it once it became clear that my health wasn’t deteriorating as it would if I really had ALS (along with some serious counseling).

    An acquaintance of mine wasn’t so lucky. He thought he had contracted cancer from a botched X-ray examination, and spent years seeing doctors all around the country trying to get them to diagnose him correctly. In the end he came to believe that they were all conspiring to cover up the truth by saying there was nothing wrong with him, but nothing his friends could say would dissuade him from his delusions. Tragically, he ended up killing his wife and then himself, leaving four little orphaned girls behind.

    Nobody chooses to be in these types of situations. It’s not just a case of “bucking up your ideas.” It takes time and a lot of help to get out of it.

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    Suicide is not common in college students. At 7.5 per 100,000 they only commit suicide at 1/2 the rate of their non-college age mates. Three in a few months in one tiny school (<1000 undergrads) is surely a disproportionate and terrible shock.

    I hope somebody in administration is at least looking at the question of whether Caltech's notoriously brutal and sleep anihilating homework schedule is implicated. Lack of sleep is correlated with depression.

  • Mandeep Gill

    Sean- wow — intense topic. i’ll just say very briefly that i appreciate
    you opened this up, posted on this. Until a person close to me took her
    own life — in a very well-publicized case at Stanford, in 2001 — i was
    very distant from what it meant, and had little understanding or
    awareness. since then, that has all changed. and the rest of my
    framework of life, and death, as well. thx for the post. -M

  • dr. lisa

    One of my Astro 101 students took his own life last semester. My community college has a mental health clinic, and a few counselors came in to help me break the news to my class and make the students aware of the options that they have to get assistance on campus. The students were stunned, as the one who had committed suicide was always talkative, vibrant, engaged in the class… not at all fitting the stereotype we carry in our heads about who is at risk.

    Best of luck to the Caltech family in recovering from your sad losses.

  • Greg Davidson

    Suicide is the canary in the coal mine. Many of my college friends left because of the high stress inhumane environment, including more than half of the ones I thought were the most brilliant. When our (unnamed here but major) University came up for accreditation review many student groups attempted to have their voices heard about some of the appalling conditions. They were totally ignored. Failure to diagnose and correct frequent administrative and occasional academic dysfunction results in an enormous loss to the academic community and society in general. This was all many years ago, in a brief “progressive” era. I hear that things have only gotten worse. It’s politically easier to point out the flaws in the most vulnerable individuals suffering within dysfunctional institutions than to seriously address the shortcomings of those institutions.


  • ginger

    the only thing surprising is how “few” the number of suicides are given the way most of the students are treated by the faculty in big name schools. Most faculty in big name schools have the attitude “if they can’t handle the academic environment, then they don’t belong in it”…nice way to ensure that only assholes continue to get jobs in academia. I have been in such environments more than once to know. We can “blog”, encourage “counseling” and all kinds of other bullshit….but the fact is that nothing really changes. Academia will remain the same: arrogant, awkward, and elitist. More students will continue to commit suicide and more blogs will be written with no real change coming to academia. This is just lip service.

  • Timon of Athens

    As professors, there is one small thing we can do to work towards a change in the culture, and that is to move away from the “look how clever I am I can solve all the problem sets” machismo, which of course is particularly bad at places like Caltech and MIT. The truth is that problem-solving is a very minor part of research, and facility in that frequently pointless activity is an *extremely* poor indicator of excellence in physics or mathematics. A great many problem sheets I see contain senseless problems that are included *only* because they are difficult to solve. I once tutored for a course on Special Relativity, and the problem sheets consisted of endless idiotic problems about tanks falling into ditches, “lab frames”, and all that dreck. One student handed in homework in which he had solved few of the problems, but in each case he had made an effort to translate the problem into Minkowski space language, and at the bottom he wrote, ” I thought SR was basically about flat spacetime, not tanks in ditches?”

    I gave him an A+ .

    If we cultivate an ethos where solving problems was subordinated to discussions aiming for a deep understanding of the material, we might [in the long run] end up with a more civilized atmosphere in our classrooms, and fewer students feeling inadequate because they can’t solve some stupid problem that should never have been set in the first place.

  • Lab Lemming

    Given the notorious reputation of the Caltech academic program, have y’all considered hosting a career day consisting of people who have flunked out only to go on to fabulous careers? It might help break some of the kids out of tunnel vision.

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  • gib

    The best thing that professors can do to help this situation is to stop being total pricks. Quite simple really. I have heard on more than one occasion Professors *openly admit* that they treat their students horribly or completely ignore them. But they rationalize this as “doing the student a favor”. In their minds they are doing the students a favor because the road to academia is so hard that if they can’t deal with the abuse now then it is better they become aware of it sooner than later….truly twisted! But this is how a LOT of professors think and openly admit!

    Some of the faculty in academia are truly disgusting. But because they are “renowned” the department will take absolutely no action against them no matter how badly they treat their students. It is pathetic how other academics grovel in the presence of “renowned” physicists no matter how obnoxious they are.

    And don’t be alarmed only when someone commits suicide. There are many *living students* who are miserable beyond belief. Just because they don’t commit suicide doesn’t make their nightmare any less real…they are simply able to tolerate abuse more than the ones who commit suicide.

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    I seem to have triggered an epidemic of “blame the profs”. That was not my intent. But it does seem like Caltech this year and in the past has more than its share of suicides. Somebody ought to try to figure out why.

    The military has a problem with suicides, and have mounted a massive program to educate everybody in prevention, from general to private to civilian. Numerically, its suicide rate is miniscule compared to Caltech’s. That doesn’t seem right, even if this year is a fluke. University should not be more stressful than repeated deployments to combat.

  • Henry Holland

    I’d be willing to bet that a certain percentage of those suicides were because they were struggling with homosexuality in a society that constantly pounds out the message that they are doomed to a lake of fire for all eternity and if they escape that, they’ll be dead of AIDS by the time they’re 30 and if they escape THAT, they’re going to grow old and be utterly alone, because of course, gays & lesbians only exist for sex, not love.

    I’ve been suicidal since I’ve been consciousness, a constant yearning for The Big Sleep has never ever left me. I’ve not taken a huge overdose of Nembutal only because my parents are still alive. I’m not depressed, I’m not stressed out, I’m not any of those things. What I am is bored, bored to fucking tears with how grindingly dull and pointless and futile life is. No amount of sex or drugs or money or accomplishment or having a nice meal with a good friend or watching a great episode of LOST or hearing a kick-ass Phish show or the Angels winning the World Series again/the Canucks finally winning the Stanley Cup or any of the other things I use to stave off weltschmertz will get rid of that.

    George Sanders suicide note: Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.

    I *heart* George Sanders.

  • Zeno

    During the time I was at Caltech, I was in the middle of that period of my life when I would make a resolution every January 1 not to kill myself that year. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I obviously kept those. Why did I feel at risk? Because I was an outlier and a square peg in a world of round holes. Even stranger, things did not “click” into place magically when I got to Tech, although I had really, really hoped they would. The other kids at Tech were a lot like me, but not quite. I dealt with it, but not drastically. Besides, each year my resolution renewal was reinforced by the fact that my grandmother would be distraught if anything were to happen to me. (Odd that I was more concerned about her feelings than any other family member’s.)

    I gradually outgrew the give-it-all-up impulse, but there was at least a ten-year period when I was on constant guard. Weird, huh?

  • random physics student

    Speaking as someone who is pondering taking their own life…

    I think that Sean’s remarks illustrate some common attitudes towards suicide which greatly discourage depressed people from talking to others. The core problem is that people assume that individuals who kill themselves have made a terrible mistake. They are unwilling to seriously consider the possibility that suicide may be the best option for some people.

    This takes a variety of forms. People think that a person who committed suicide must have done so impulsively (hence the advice to stop and reconsider) or must have been too crazy to exercise rational judgment.

    Many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, do seriously impair a person’s capacity for rational judgment. However, it is much more problematic to claim that depressed people suffer from “mental illness” and thus cannot exercise rational judgment. Surely it is possible for mentally healthy people to be unhappy, even severely miserable. Now, perhaps it is possible to define mentally-unhealthy-depression in a way that is distinct from mentally-healthy-misery and to distinguish these conditions based on some objective criteria. But most people don’t even attempt to make this distinction. Instead they simply assume that every unhappy person who commits suicide was depressed in a judgment-impairing manner and thus made a huge mistake.

    Talking to people who assume that you are severely irrational is alternately frustrating and humiliating.

    Sean recognizes that people with extreme incurable pain might quite sensibly want to kill themselves. There plenty of ways to be miserable other than physical pain. As for myself, I’d gladly trade my miseries for quite a lot of physical pain.

  • malwae

    I’ve been watching the Armed Forces Network (military TV) recently, and there are a lot of informational spots about suicide being the second leading cause of death in the Marines. Oddly, while these commercials urge soldiers to immediately seek help if they or somebody they know is suicidal, not a single one has listed out the signs and symptoms of suicidal tendencies. Odd, since there are some very well established warning signs about which it would be easy to educate people.

  • hendrix

    Quarks, DNA, path integrals, chemical reactions, excellent students, great researchers, bad students, whatever…! our health/life is always much more important than all that is found on the campus… seek help, if you feel displaced.

    I know that Neptune does not even finish one “lap” around the Sun and all the human beings currently living are dead. But hey, lets not hurry up.

  • Bee

    Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students

    While this is sad, I wonder whether this is specific to college students? I suspect it’s just the age group. At that age, you likely die either from an accident or by suicide. Statistics anybody?

    Btw, please read carefully what “random physics student” says above. There is in fact research showing that it’s depressed people who see the world more rational (see Depressive Realism), so be careful when you try to appeal to a person’s rationality, you might be doing exactly the wrong thing.

    There are certainly many bad reasons to take one’s life, one of the most common problem that I’ve seen is the attempt to get attention. People who talk about committing suicide might eventually feel like they have to do it just because they announced it. That’s a real problem. Never, ever make fun about somebody who talks about jumping out a window. On the other hand I think that the one and only thing that really belongs to a person is their life, and it’s up to them what they want to do with it. Unless you have good evidence that they might be subject to a temporary and curable confusion of mind, suicide is their decision.

  • steve from brisbane

    random physics student: while I understand what you are saying, I would hope that, from a purely rational point of view, you would consider the evidence of countless numbers of people who have felt suicidal at one stage of their life, but have come through it and lived to later be very thankful that they are still alive.

    I mean, doesn’t it make sense that this is why virtually everyone thinks suicide by a physically healthy young person is a tragedy: because we know from widely reported experience that unhappy people (whether from a chemical imbalance in the brain, or as a “rational” reaction to a really bad situation) don’t have to – and virtually never do – stay that way all of their lives.

    You have to remember too, I think, that rationality in matters of human experience is not like a set of train tracks that lead to an inevitable conclusion. There is often more than one possible response to a situation that is arguably “rational”, but you have to really examine how your own conclusion is reached (including what assumptions both obvious and not so obvious are involved) to be able to say whether it is the wisest response out of a set of possible, rational ones.

    As I say, the possibility, indeed likelihood, of a end to current troubles is a very powerful and rational argument against suicide.

  • joulesm

    As a former Caltech student and currently in the military, these suicides have affected me even though I didn’t know all three individuals. One of my peers who graduated with me also committed suicide the year after we graduated, and I have always wondered why he did it. He was one of those people who excelled easily, even at tech, kind of shy and quiet, but he had a small group of close friends (a couple of which went to the same grad school). No one I knew saw it coming, not even his girlfriend.

    The military requires an annual suicide prevention training for everyone, but you can listen to their training and watch for those signs…but when you still can’t prevent the tragedies…it just hits you each time that maybe there isn’t anything you can do…and THAT is quite depressing.

  • Timon of Athens

    Random physics student: You say, “They are unwilling to seriously consider the possibility that suicide may be the best option for some people.”

    That is true indeed. For people in untreatable physical pain, or perhaps people paralysed from the neck down. Not for you.

    As someone who [when a physics student] made a serious suicide attempt, and as someone who has seen his wife die under horrendous circumstances, I can tell you that I will *not* do away with myself as long as I can get up and walk. Because no matter how bad things get, I can always get up and walk out. Start life again somewhere else. Get on a plane to Cambodia and teach English for a living. That option is just as real as suicide, and it is always there. Repeat after me: if things get really intolerable, I will get up and walk out. There is a world elsewhere.

  • boomer

    The people who say suicide is never an option are the ones who are irrational. Because people are irrational, no matter how bad things get they will cling to “life is precious” nonsense. Even if they meet someone whose entire family was killed, has no means of supporting herself, is badly beaten, raped, disfigured, and disabled, and has no prospects whatsoever in the future…you will still have irrational morons come and say…hey, “life is precious”, “you will get through this”. Highly irrational! Stupid people are often the happiest! Ignorance is bliss!

    Furthermore, irrational people will be swayed by the silliest thing and avoid suicide. For example, if the woman described in the above paragraph were to be sitting on a hillside watching the sunset…if she were irrational, she would conclude something like “wow, the sunset is so beautiful…this alone is reason to live! yay!” Only an irrational person can forget all the problems in their lives because of a stupid sunset and avoid suicide. Seriously, stupidity is the key to happiness.

  • Norwegian Shooter

    Sean, I am very grateful that you posted on suicide. Caltech’s slide show is excellent, as well. Send it to everyone you know. I made a suicide attempt several years after college.

    Yes, “seek help” is cheap and easy advice, but it is still very important to give it. Everyone should know how and feel comfortable talking to someone about their problems. However, efforts to encourage depressed people to seek help don’t work for people currently at risk of suicide. Potential suicides are not “willing to reach out.” They are generally beyond self-help. That is why the institutional aspect is crucial to preventing suicide.

    The last slide says it well: Everyone is part of the safety net. Be alert and aware. Communicate your concerns (about someone else) to someone who can help.

    Also, telling someone at risk of suicide to buck up, look at the bright side, you have all these things to live for, etc. will likely make the person feel worse. They can’t believe these things. Pointing out why they should feel good only highlights how differently they feel about the situation. (There is lots of research showing that people with low self-esteem feel worse when told positive things about themselves) The best thing to do is talk to a mental health resource about the person.

  • Bruce Bassett

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for starting this important discussion. My perception reading the comments is that there is a significant difference between the comments made by the people with direct experience of suicide and those without. The latter tend to talk about abstract mental models of the situation which may or may not be relevant. The former speak from experience and for me at least are much more compelling and insightful, and I thank them for commenting since I suspect it is much harder for them to speak out and yet they potentially offer the deepest understanding.

    My other, slightly off-topic, comment is that for me this discussion is the tragic tail of a much more general problem in academia – the lack of balance, for want of a better term. This applies quite generally from students to professors and which reflects in the harsh attitudes of some professors along the lines of “I made it through that hell and I turned out OK/great, so it can’t be that bad/is good”.

    As a final note: if we select as professors those who have excelled in the highest-pressure, competitive academic environments around, are we surprised when they have little or no understanding or empathy – yet alone sympathy – for those who are struggling?

    I point to an up-coming workshop on this aspect of the problem:


  • Mike Saelim

    Thanks for blogging about this, Sean. Although we haven’t had 3 in the last year, Cornell’s had its problems with suicides over the years because of its location amid the gorges.

  • hendrix

    boomer: You call a lot of people “irrational” in your comment. You say ignorance is a bliss, etc. I agree that some people live in “bubbles” and think that the world is… is just …”very happy” ! We know that this is not the case. But problems arrive for these people too (for sure!) and then they will have to “prove” themselves.

    Suicide is always an option, of course. But you neglect (rational!) people that suffered a lot in life, in many ways, and chose to live (and perhaps make difference and be happy as possible). I bet there are millions of examples around (e.g., see the great post by steve above!). Personally, I like these stories and not the ones about suicide. I give much more credit to these people rather than the ones that gave up everything.

    p.s. And yes, I forgot to mention, I passed several hard problems in my life. A new one (big, unfortunately) just arrived.

  • Former Tech Student

    As a former undergrad at CalTech (early 2000s) I have seen the worst and the best of the acedemic and social systems there. I love and I hate CalTech.

    1. Solving difficult problems doesn’t teach one science-it just tires one out. Subsequently, I discovered that simple problems can bring out insight and lasting understanding that are completely lost in reduandant, convoluted computational tricks. And thus, when solving a problem, I always return to my 5-th grade learnings and move from there. There goes my highly-recognized advanced degree!
    2. Having professors who’d rather be doing research is not inspirational. I’d rather work with people who see me as a future contributor, and not as a dummy monkey that can be trained to type. The one thing that absolutely lacks in Caltech is the one-on-one with professors, the discussions…Everything is set in stone! Devine inspiration!
    3. But it is exactly that highly recognized degree that go me through to good outside-the-bubble folks. The experience was so bad for me that I learned to love my outside-of-the-bubble normal life today! Thank you Caltech.
    4.Caltech collects a lot of bright people. And just for that, even though enough are arrogant, it is still worthwhile acquainting them.

    Social Growth:
    1. Given that overwhelming amount of time is spent either crunching numbers or soldering things in a lab, there is not much to say about social activities.
    2. But what was hidden from me for three years was uncovered in my last year there. There is plenty to do, to get you out of the academic pressure, even for a few hours a day, or a week. And this could be enough. There are excellent music programs open to everyone. There are excellent athletic programs, also open to everyone. There are volunteer opportunities open to everyone. And everything is so open to everyone, it is stunning that it is so difficult to learn about these opportunities. I did not know how to swim, and I learned. I couldn’t say the difference between feel and fill, and now I can. I didn’t know how to tie-die, now I know. There is a lot to do besides academia, and if the balance is discovered, life at CalTech can be a bliss. It is just that balance is not the priority at that school. But it should be the bible-lecture not only there, but everywhere.

    Once experience is above mental development. It’s physical, emotional. True, there are enough nutty nobel prize winners, but not all prize winners are nuts. There are enough perfectly normal people among them, and maybe CalTech’s admission should start remembering that…

  • boomer

    Hendrix: I was simply responding to all the people on here commenting that suicidal people are “mentally ill” or “irrational”. This is highly annoying and I needed to point out that a lot of suicidal people are of sound mind and judgement and know what they are doing.

    Furthermore, it is the ones who keep repeating that “things will get better” and “life is beautiful” ad nauseam that are actually irrational…a lot of these people are religious and hold out hope that god will come and perform some miracle to make everything ok…or usually they forget their problems after seeing a beautiful sunset feeling suddenly “enlightened” about the beauty of life; even though it has nothing to do with their problems. These same people go around calling suicidal people irrational which is just laughable.

  • hendrix

    boomer: ok… I see your point. I agree with parts of it.

  • Fourteener

    A young person’s suicide may be the best choice for some individuals, but it’s seldom the best choice for the family, for societies, or for civilization. I worked that out as a 13-year old, setting in a maple tree with a rope around my neck. I’m 61 now and have almost never regretted not jumping.

  • USS Kevin

    I am not being the least bit flippant or ignorant when I say that people in academia, teachers and students, should all see the 1985 film Real Genius.

    The film revolves around very smart students at a high-pressure university (modeled on Caltech ironicall enough) who finally say screw it to the very same problems listed in this thread. The main character is seen as a goofball slacker but the truth is, he probably saved his own life and those of his fellow students.

    Remember when learning was fun? Seeing what I know about academia makes me glad I never went into it. I might not have been suicidal but become more proactive in my reaction.

  • Andrew

    As a recent grad of Caltech (two months ago), I find that faculty members are not only part of the solution, but are part of the problem. They know which colleagues are abusive and still they do nothing to police their own. Until faculty members step up to the plate, the suicides will continue. The most current lab to have a grad student commit suicide had an attempted suicide a few months back. Members of the faculty certainly knew this and did nothing to institute any sort of safety net. Caltech is a stressful place as it is. I recognize that some students can’t handle the stress very well, but it does not help when faculty members are adding to the stress by either not being supportive or being downright abusive.

  • mary

    Andrew : I agree with you completely. Faculty don’t police their own because the abusive ones are usually renowned or highly respected in their fields of research. Most faculty don’t have the guts to do anything…especially if they are not tenured (for good reason). For example if the abusive faculty member is a Nobel Laureate, there is pretty much nothing anyone can do…it is too important for the institution to be able claim on their brochures that their department has a Nobel Laureate. And usually the rest of the faculty are too busy trying to impress the Nobel Laureate like a bunch of
    star-struck preteens.

    There really needs to be an external body “with teeth” that can take serious action against abusive faculty members. Some sort of an ethics committee that can take serious action. The DOE does have such a panel, but it has no teeth…they usually come every year and ask grad students about any grievances and write a report…but of course nothing is actually done.

  • john


    I notice you used the word ‘themself’ instead of ‘himself’. From what I could gather from caltech’s website, the suicide victim was male. A google search reveals that for men the suicide rate is currently twice that of women.

    While you seem very motivated about increasing the number of women in physics, it seems to me that you and people in general aren’t as concerned about reducing the number of men commiting suicide, or in fact even treating it as a gender issue – one which perhaps needs to be addressed from a male perspective.

    I am saying this because it is a point that means something to me.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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