The European University Institute, the prestigious postgraduate school housed in a 15th-century ex-monastery on a hill outside Florence and financed by the European Union nations, is launching a special programme of medical care and psychological support after four students committed suicide in just 18 months.
Between January 1997 and August 1998, a German, a Ukrainian, an Austrian and a French student all took their lives while working on, or having just completed, their theses. At the EUI, with a population of only 300 students a year, four suicides in succession is a real emergency.
Andeas Frijdal, the Dutch director of EUI's academic services, said: "We are very disturbed and are taking the matter very seriously, of course."
The institute is in contact with other international graduate schools, which have had similar problems in the past, to try to understand the causes of the outbreak and how it can be tackled.
"We are launching a health-care plan for students that will be based on in-house general practitioners," Mr Frijdal said. "They will treat general health problems among the students, but the idea is that they will be sensitive in recognising symptoms like, say, headaches or insomnia, which may be indicators of deeper psychological problems.
"In these cases, they will then refer the student to a network of psychiatrists and psychotherapists that we are in the process of putting together."
Mr Frijdal is seeking to minimise publicity. "We know from experiences in the past in other institutions that there is a danger of copy-cat suicides if past suicides are overly dramatised or even glamorised," he said.
But the institute is still faced with the question of why a string of brilliant students, selected as an elite to become the brains behind the Europe of tomorrow, working in the idyllic setting of a Renaissance monastery in Fiesole, on an olive tree and vineyard covered hillside overlooking Florence, plunge into such desperation as to take their own lives.
"We have a number of psychiatrists and other experts investigating these cases and are awaiting their findings. A superficial analysis might be this: all four suicides were students who had finished or were about to finish their time at the EUI. So perhaps there is a trauma in having to get back into the real world."
Mr Frijdal's theory is to some extent echoed by students interviewed by an Italian magazine.
"The institute is a narcissistic structure," said Emanuel Betta. "Academics of great prestige, Renaissance buildings, a spectacular setting. Students face total identification with the institute, and going outside this ivory tower is perceived as a betrayal."
"The structure is rigid and closed," declared Halmut Hoefert. "Intense rhythms, fierce competition, great expectations. The institute offers no connection with the outside world. Only elementary Italian is taught, enough to buy a loaf of bread or rent a flat, because Italian is considered a non-competitive language. Therefore, isolation from the real world is the price which one must pay for this very valuable experience."
The EUI may have recognised this, with possible efforts to broaden students' contacts with the outside world through links with the University of Florence and through the organisation of sports, yoga, trekking and other leisure activities.