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HuffingtonPost has an article up today about a disturbing trend among unemployed college graduates with high student loans. They’re killing themselves. HuffPost blogger C. Cryn Johannsen writes:

I first started appreciating the depth of the problem of suicidal debtors a few years ago, with a post on my blog, All Education Matters, entitled, “Suicide Among Student Debtors: Who’s Thought About It?” I was stunned by the responses. In comment after comment, people confessed to feeling suicidal.

Some of the people who write to me are quite specific about how they plan to kill themselves. One person said, “I think about jumping from the 27th floor window of my office every day.” For suicide prevention experts, this is a dangerous sign, as it means that the person has actually devised a plan to carry out the act. In recent months, the notes have increased, and if anything they are even more desperate. One individual admitted that he thought about killing himself all the time. Another even claimed — which was beyond disturbing — that prior to writing his comment, he had been sitting in his car, with the garage door shut.

Johanssen points out that law school students are some of the most frequent responders to her blog; many have amassed crushing debt, haven’t been able to find a job, and are faced with default.

The Dave Nee Foundation’s website notes that the legal profession is already plagued with high depression and suicide rates. In the wake of law school student Dave Nee’s suicide, the Foundation formed and developed a program, Uncommon Counsel, that  they present to law school students highlighting the problem of depression in the legal industry. The ABAJournal notes:

The statistics on law student depression merit concern. Law professor Larry Krieger of Florida State University studies how the law school experience affects students’ mental health. He has reported that between 20 and 40 percent of law students suffer from clinical depression by the time they graduate; that the incidence of clinically elevated anxiety, hostility and depression among students is eight to 15 times that of the general population; and that, out of 104 occupational groups, lawyers rank the highest in depression and fifth in incidence of suicide.Complicating this is the fact that student loans are some of the few debts that cannot be mitigated by bankruptcy. Johanssen writes that, though there has been no formal study of the problem, there have been studies linking unemployment to increased suicide rates, and anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide is something that increasing numbers of debt-ridden college grads are considering.

The economic downturn has only exacerbated the problem. For a profession already plagued by suicide rates, the fact that large numbers of law school graduates are now facing  under-or unemployment.

Last year, The Boy came home with an assignment–we were supposed to sit down and develop a plan to get him through college. It was enlightening, to say the least. Like everybody else, we will be facing the issue of steep educational fees and limited income.

That assignment was enlightening. We’ve managed to develop a plan that should, with dedication, see us through. Mostly, it highlighted the fact that if we are to get him through college without a crushing debt load, we are going to have to change the way that we think about college. For what it’s worth, here’s what it looks like we’ll need to do to get him educated.

1. Stop compartmentalizing. The old system, where one went to high school, then college, then found a job, then married, simply isn’t going to work for us. For college to happen, we will have to stop thinking of it as a stand-alone activity, and see it as something that takes place in conjunction with other things. Things like what?

High school. Our part of Oregon offers high school students the option of attending college for free or for sharply discounted rates. Easter Oregon University runs a summer program that allows high school students to stay in the dorm, attend college, and earn credits for sharply discounted rates. Our school district offers high school students the option of attending Blue Mountain Community College and earning college credits for free through the Expanded Options program. One of the students in my writing class graduated from high school–and from BMCC with her AA degree–this spring. Taking advantage of programs like this can dramatically reduce the cost of college.

Working at a trade. Students have long defrayed the cost of college by holding down jobs, but the jobs students can typically work around their schedules tend to pay very little, and offer little in the way of security or incentives. As part of our college plan, we’ve decided that The Boy is going to be learning a specified trade–typesetting and presentation development springs to mind–that he can pursue while he goes to college. He needs a job that will pay enough to cover college and living expenses, and flipping burgers just won’t do that.

Living his life. We can’t think of college as something he does in preparation for life, but as something he does while he lives his life. Working and going to college takes a long time. If we don’t have a plan that keeps our life livable while eliminating the need for student loans, those years are going to be very long indeed. The old formula of high school-college-job-marriage simply doesn’t apply. Maybe he’ll need to stay at home longer. Maybe we’ll have to build a small second house on the lot. Maybe he and his partner, if any, will have to work and live and go to college. Life is long. Whoever said that college had to be over by thirty? Or fifty? We’re going to have to be flexible.

There are other, incidental things that we’ll try to exploit where we can–things like employee discounts, since I teach at a college, and alumni opportunities at the college and grad school where I got my degrees–but the bottom line is that our reality has dictated a change in how we approach higher education.

In retrospect, 2008 was the end of the world as we knew it. Our financial and political systems are collapsing under the twin weights of greed and ideology. Thriving in this new world is requiring that we rethink everything. We are being forced to revisit issues that we thought we had put behind us–things like women’s rights and racism are being re-examined and challenged in sometimes-frightening ways. The idea of job security has become a joke. Our world is breaking.

So what’s the bottom line? Darwin had it right–the organisms that can adapt and evolve to meet and succeed in a changing environment are the organisms that survive. If we are being challenged, we are also being offered opportunities to evolve. If these are frightening times, they are also exciting times. With a little creativity, a lot of elbow grease, patience, and open-mindedness we can meet the challenge.

But in the meantime, pay attention. Keep track of the students and unemployed graduates with big student loans. Understand that they’re a vulnerable group. If you love them, keep them safe. And let’s find a way to help solve the problem for all of us.

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