13 Mar Student Suicides and the Need for Better Mental Health Support on College Campuses
Student suicide rates have been steadily increasing, with recent reports citing the highest recorded number of deaths by suicide across college campuses in years. Annually, more than 1,100 college students die by suicide, and another 24,000 attempt to take their lives. These concerning numbers highlight the need for colleges and universities to do more to address the mental health needs of their students to reverse this alarming trend.
Student Suicides by the Numbers
Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students. Results from the first National College Health Risk Behavior Survey showed that 10.3% of respondents reported that they seriously considered attempting suicide, 6.7% had made a suicide plan, and 1.5% reported they had attempted suicide one or more times in the 12 months preceding the survey.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to suicidal ideation among college students, with stress being one of the most common. College students are often busy juggling a heavy course load, immersed in extracurricular activities, and navigating social life on campus. For many, it’s also the first time they are living away from home.
With the pressure to succeed academically, many students find themselves under immense amounts of stress. This can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, which can in turn lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts. Recent data from the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment shows that 29.1% of college students have been diagnosed with anxiety and 23.6% have been diagnosed with depression.
Another factor that can contribute to suicidal ideation is a lack of support. Many college students feel isolated and alone, and may not have anyone to turn to when they are struggling. This can make it difficult to cope with mental health issues and can lead to thoughts of suicide.
Suicidal Risk Factors
Students from marginalized backgrounds carry more unseen burdens that put them at elevated risk for suicide. Those identifying as an ethnic minority and/or LGBTQ+ are more likely to have been assaulted, rejected, discriminated against, and victimized because of these factors.
LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely than their peers to have suicidal thoughts or display suicidal behaviors. Likewise, reports show that suicides among young black individuals have increased nationally by 30% since 2014. Those at risk for food insecurity and students who have anxiety and depression are also at an increased risk.
It is not always possible to predict or prevent suicide, however, many individuals show signs of suicidal risk prior to an actual attempt. These risk factors include:
- Talking about being a burden to others or wanting to disappear
- Talking about death more than usual
- Presenting as sad, depressed, or deeply ashamed
- Enduring significant emotional or physical pain
- Feeling trapped or being stuck in a perceived no-win situation
- Discussing or writing out a plan to die
- Giving away beloved or cherished objects
- Withdrawing socially, or unexpectedly saying goodbye to friends and family
- Experiencing drastic changes in sleep, mood, or eating behaviors
- Engaging in violent or self-destructive behavior
- Acting recklessly or behaving in risky ways, such as misusing substances or driving carelessly
Suicidal Warning Signs in College Students
While there is no absolute way to know that someone is thinking of hurting themselves, there are warning signs specific to college students that may indicate they are considering suicide. Here’s what to look for:
Suddenly worsening school performance. Good students who suddenly start to ignore assignments or cut classes may have problems – including depression or drug and alcohol misuse – that can affect their health and happiness and put them at risk of suicide.
Unhealthy peer relationships. Students who don’t have friends, or suddenly reject their friends, may be at risk. A friend who suddenly rejects you, claiming, “You just don’t understand me anymore,” may be having emotional problems that need to be addressed.
Indications that a student is in an abusive relationship. Some young people may be experiencing physical or emotional abuse by a member of their family or a romantic partner. Signs that a person may be in an abusive relationship include unexplained bruises or other injuries that they refuse to discuss.
Signs of an eating disorder. An eating disorder is an obvious sign that someone needs help. A dramatic change in weight that is not the result of a medically supervised diet may also indicate that something is wrong.
Difficulty in adjusting to sexual/gender identity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered young people have higher suicide attempt rates than their heterosexual peers. These youth may be faced with social pressures that make life very difficult.
If you are a parent of a college student, there are also ways that you can help. Pay attention to your child’s mental health, and be on the lookout for signs that they may be struggling. If you are concerned, reach out to their college and see what resources are available.
Supporting Student Mental Health
It is essential that colleges provide more resources and support for those struggling with their mental health. By doing so, they can help to reduce the number of suicides on college campuses. In order to combat the mental health issue of its students, colleges are beginning to implement programs and policies aimed at improving mental health on campus.
One of the most common initiatives is providing more resources for students struggling with mental health. This can include things like increasing the number of counselors on staff, providing more mental health services, and increasing awareness of mental health topics. But there are also smaller bite programs that can be implemented to help ease stress, depression, and anxiety for college students.
- Organize an on-campus food pantry to help address the needs of students who are food insecure.
- Host wellness events like morning or evening yoga at a museum, art gallery, or outside setting.
- Provide access to therapy dogs during mid-terms and finals week so students can enjoy some relaxation and fun with friendly pups. Studies show students generally feel less stressed after interacting with a therapy dog. The interaction also helps students achieve a stronger sense of belonging and makes them better equipped to deal with being homesick, while lessening their anxiety.
- Set up nature campus walks. Spending time in nature can help relieve stress and anxiety, improve your mood, and boost feelings of happiness and well-being.
- Create healing spaces for students to make crafts, exercise, dance, play music, and connect with peers.
- Host a variety of recreation, fitness, and wellness activities. Clinical trials have proven exercise can be used successfully to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression.
- Provide additional resources needed to improve student mental health and well-being, You can do this by establishing embedded counselors throughout the campus and in dormitory settings.
- Integrate campus-level diversity, equity, inclusion, and mental health programs to foster a sense of belonging for all students, especially those in underserved populations. One way of doing this is to utilize student mental health ambassadors who can break down barriers and reduce the stigma around mental health to foster a sense of belonging among their peers.
- Offer free telehealth counseling services, and coordinate off-campus referrals to mental health professionals.
Here are some operational approaches that colleges and universities can implement to support student mental health:
Conduct surveys that ask students about their mental health needs and perceptions about counseling in order to provide effective services.
Develop clear protocols for what to do if a student is in crisis or is hospitalized. Protocols can help counselors, medical staff, and school leadership act quickly and follow established procedures.
Identify students at risk. It is important to identify students with mental health concerns, substance use problems, and any other students who are at risk for suicide before they are in crisis. This includes supporting the transition to college for incoming students with mental health histories and training campus community members to identify, reach out to, and refer students at risk. Invest in programs that promote positive life skills, wellness, and connectedness across the entire student body.
Promote social connectedness. Research has shown that supportive social relationships and feeling connected to campus, family, and friends are protective factors that can help lower suicide risk. This includes promoting inclusiveness on campus, identifying and reaching out to disconnected and isolated students, and supporting connectedness among traditionally marginalized or higher-risk student groups.
Follow crisis management procedures. Crisis management includes access to immediate emergency services on campus or in the community, published access to local or national crisis resources, as well as policies that protect and support students during a time of crisis. There absolutely needs to be an appropriate institutional response to student suicide, death, or other emergencies. And it needs to be sincere.
These types of initiatives have a positive impact on a student’s mental health. In a recent survey of college students, it was found that those who had used mental health services provided on campus felt that those resources had helped them cope with their stress and anxiety. If you are a college student who is struggling with your mental health, it is important to seek out help. There are many resources available to you, and you don’t have to face this problem alone.
Together, we can help reduce the rates of suicide among college students and improve mental health on campuses across the country. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, reach out for help.
The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline offers free, confidential, 24/7 help. Dial 988 to connect with a trained counselor who can offer emotional support to people in suicidal crises or emotional distress. They can also provide prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.
The Trevor Project provides suicide prevention and crisis intervention to LGBTQ young people ages 13-24. You can call, text, or chat to talk with a crisis counselor 24/7, 365 days a year. The Trevor Lifeline is available by calling 866-488-7386.
The Jed Foundation (JED) is a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults. The Jed Foundation provides colleges and universities expert support, evidence-based best practices, and data-driven guidance to protect student mental health and prevent suicide. They develop a customized strategic plan to build on existing strengths and implement tools, strategies, and techniques that lead to measurable improvements in student mental health and a more connected community.
The Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HOME to 741741. This free, confidential service is available 24/7.
Anxiety.org offers resources specific to college students.
The demand for mental health treatment is forecasted to remain very high for the foreseeable future. If you’re stretched thin for resources as you try to accommodate more patients who need care, consider using a behavioral health-specific EHR to help manage your everyday workflows. Contact us today to learn how NextStep Solutions tools and technology have helped others in the behavioral health community thrive.