As students head off to college, they may face significant transitions. Many leave home for the first time, suddenly needing to balance a wide range of new challenges on their own, including new people, places, responsibilities, and possibilities. There is also increased freedom and the independence to explore life on their own terms. College students also face intense stress, including over academics, new relationships, exposure to alcohol and drugs, and their environment. This creates an increased risk of mental health challenges. While most work through those challenges, some find it too difficult to manage on their own. College suicide is a very real and heartbreaking experience.
Have Suicide Amongst College Students Increased?
Understanding college suicide and why it occurs may be critical to helping students. There is no way to understand all risks, and answers are often fleeting. A review of college suicide rates could provide more insight into what is occurring.
- Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in both teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24.
- About 1 in 3 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 report feeling mental, behavioral, or emotional distress or health issues in the last year.
- An estimated 29.1% of college students have been diagnosed with anxiety. An estimated 23.6% of college students have a diagnosis of depression.
While college students face an increased risk of suicide, mental health challenges may stem from high school, too.
- An estimated 8.9% of high school students attempted suicide in the previous year. Among the highest were gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens at 23.4%, females at 11%, and black teens at 11.8%.
Some of those risks could carry over to high school if students do not get the support they need soon enough.
Have suicide rates increased? Most recent data points to the changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In 2019, 21% of college-aged students experienced symptoms of depression. In 2021, that rate had increased to 43.4%, specifically in people aged 18 to 29.
- In 2019, 11% of college students between 18 and 29 years of age screened for anxiety were positive. In 2021, that number grew to 48.5%.
- A 30.7% increase in emergency room visits in those who were 12 to 17 years of age occurred between 2019 and 2020, specifically for mental health reasons.
Research of Japanese university students shows a significant increase in the number of people struggling, especially during the pandemic. During COVID-19, many university students there faced harsh living conditions, often no longer having access to face-to-face sessions and instead having to work fully remotely, often isolated from family and friends. This lead to many struggling with emotional stress.
That research showed that suicide rates in total were significantly higher for college students during and since the pandemic. They were the highest from 2020 to 2021 and the highest in the last six academic years. For women, that school year was the highest in the previous eight years, showing a significant increase in recent years.
What Are the Risk Factors for Suicide?
Recognizing the risk factors for college suicide is a critical step in reversing this trend. Common risk factors associated with college suicide risk include:
- A history of abuse
- Poverty and under- or unemployment
- Family history of depression or suicide (or their own history of attempts)
- Mental health problems related to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and others
- Isolation from family and friends
- Isolation from the spiritual community
- Access to lethal methods, including firearms
- A recent loss, including a break-up or a death of a loved one
- New educational system
- Homesickness and culture shock
- Language barriers
- Academic problems include failing courses, inattentiveness
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Feelings of discrimination over sexual identity, race, culture
- Experiences of hopelessness
- Feelings of guilt, shame, loneliness, and inadequacy
Potential Warning Signs of Suicide
Recognizing warning signs of suicide may enable people to get help sooner. Some of the noted warning signs of college suicide may include:
- Worsening performance in academics
- Preoccupation with death, suicide, or dying
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Neglecting hygiene and appearance
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Depression or changes in mental health
- Significant mood changes
- Uncontrolled periods of rage or anger
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Giving away prized possessions
- Engaging in increasingly risky behavior
Those who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, harming themselves, or harming others should immediately call 911 to receive help.
What Colleges Can Do to Help Prevent Suicide Amongst Students
Prevention of all suicide is a goal, but it may be difficult to obtain without colleges taking an active role in creating an environment where students can easily get the help they need when they need it. Suggestions from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and JED’s “Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention for Colleges and Universities” report include:
- Promote social connectedness with students: Building stronger social relationships and creating opportunities for students to feel connected may help lower suicide risk. This includes creating more connection opportunities on campuses, with family, and with friends. Promoting inclusiveness on campus is a core component of this process. Campuses also need to identify and reach out to students who may be isolated.
- Provide access to mental health services: This includes for mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, as well as substance use disorders. A strong on-campus mental health system is a critical factor here and should be as important as primary care services.
- Identify at-risk students: This includes students who may have established a diagnosis of mental health disorders, those with alcohol or drug use problems, and those who may have attempted suicide prior. Provide supportive tools to transition incoming students who have a history of mental health disorders. Have numerous touch points for students.
- Follow crisis management procedures: This includes having immediate emergency access to on-campus support when needed, including national crisis resources. Be sure policies are in place to help support students who are in need. Additionally, provide support to students after suicides, deaths, or other traumatic events happen on campus.
- Increase student help-seeking behavior: Ensure students understand what type of help is available and that it is readily available to them. Work to reduce the burden of stigma that is often associated with mental health problems. Not only provide resources but ensure there is an effective way for students to get them.
How to Help If You Think Someone May Be Considering Suicide
Recognizing the warning signs in a college student should mean taking some action. Some steps that could be taken include:
- Ask key questions, including “Do you ever feel like just giving up?” and “Are you thinking about suicide?”
- Don’t let a person be alone if there is a risk.
- Call 911 for immediate help or get the individual to an emergency room.
- Encourage the person to call for immediate help.
- Help a person get into treatment. Provide direct access to support, whether that’s to visit an emergency room or to get a mental health counselor involved immediately.
Tips for Talking About Suicide and Mental Health
Talking to students about suicide and mental health risk isn’t simplistic. Many believe they don’t have to worry about these concerns. There are some topics that need to be discussed to help reduce the risk of further loss.
- Talk about the warning signs that students may see in other students. Be sure professors and others on campus understand these signs as well.
- Encourage people to share their concerns. It’s the right thing to reach out to help someone, even if you’re not sure they need that help.
- Ask the questions. Don’t be afraid to simply ask a person if they are thinking about suicide or self-harm. Directly asking, be critical.
- Listen to students openly. Encourage a dialog and conversation about the risks college students face as well as how those obstacles can improve.
- Encourage students to be hopeful. Talk about the benefits of getting help and that even their worst days now may be much better soon.
Dos and Don’ts – What You Should and Should Not Do
- Reach out and provide immediate help to those struggling.
- Call 911 when there is an impending risk.
- Offer to be there to help someone, but only if you mean it.
- Recognize the warning signs in friends, family, teachers, staff, and others.
- Ignore the problem or walk away.
- Discount conversations about death and dying.
- Dismiss thoughts of self harm as normal or harmless.
How to Get Help if You’re Thinking About Suicide
The following support tools can help students, as well as others, to get the help they need:
- Dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
- Visit Suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with a trained crisis counselor.
- Text NAMI to 741741 to text with the Crisis Text Line
Additional Mental Health Resources
The following mental health resources may provide you with the guidance you need: