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Sen. Hughes proposes panel to study college suicides

Sen. Hughes has introduced a senate resolution that would establish a 25-member committee to study whether colleges are doing enough to help suicidal students.

Concerned about recent suicides on area college campuses, a Philadelphia state senator wants to form a committee to study whether schools are doing enough to support struggling students.

Sen. Vincent Hughes has proposed a resolution that would create a 25-member advisory committee made up of college officials, students and mental health experts, with the goal of having a report and recommendations by the end of December. The committee would consider changes in statutes, policies and procedures.

Hughes' effort follows several student suicides at the University of Pennsylvania in the last year, as well as at several other Pennsylvania colleges, including Pennsylvania State University. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students.

Colleges aren't required to report suicides, so the problem is hard to track. Penn officials said they didn't know how many students died of suicide over the last five years when asked earlier this year.

"We have to get a handle on this," Hughes, (D., Phila.), said in a recent interview. "I just want to make sure we're coming up with good solid information that is a good representation of what's happening on our campuses."

Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations committee, said he hopes to get the resolution passed before the Senate recesses in June. It would not require action by the House.

The bill has co-sponsors, including Sen. Andy Dinniman, (D., Chester), but it's unclear whether it will have enough support to pass.

The Senate education committee is reviewing the resolution, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware.)

Because the study would be convened by the Joint State Government Commission, "one of the next steps will be to reach see how the proposal would impact the commission's budget and resources," Arneson said.

"Sen. Pileggi believes the issue of suicide among college students is serious and deserves additional examination," Arneson said.

Sen. Mike Folmer, (R., Lebanon), the majority chair of the Senate Education Committee, did not return a call for comment Friday.

Hughes said he isn't sure what recommendations could come out of the committee.

"What I want to make sure is we're not dealing with anecdotal information but hard, serious research that will help us make good decisions," he said. "If there is an increase in suicide, my best guess is that there's an increase in other mental problems students are confronting."

Hughes said he hopes his colleagues will support the resolution.

"This is a commission," he said, "to get information about what appears to be an increase in a problem, a very serious problem."

Under the resolution, the committee would be made up of: the four presidents or designees of the state-related universities, Temple, Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln; the chancellor or designee of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees the 14 state universities; two representatives from private colleges; a representative from a community college; three students; secretary of health or designee; secretary of education of designee; a representative from the Department of Public Welfare's Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; and 11 experts in suicide, physical, behavioral or mental health.