According to the American College Health Association (ACHA) the suicide rate among young adults, ages 15-24, has tripled since the 1950s and suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students. These young people are often away from home and friends for the first time. They're living with strangers, far from their support systems, and working under intense pressure - with disrupted sleeping, eating and exercise patterns.
You could hardly design a more stressful atmosphere, particularly when depression or other mental health issues enter the picture. Here's a snapshot of the grim statistics on college suicides and teen suicide attempts, as well as what some colleges are doing to help.
- Experts estimate 1,0888 suicides occur at colleges every year - that's roughly 7.5 per 100,000 students. According to an ACHA study in 2002, 1 in 12 college students has actually made a suicide plan at some point and 1.5 out of every 100 have actually attempted it.
- Numbers vary on different campuses, of course. Arizona State University, for example, estimates that 11% of its students considered suicide, and 1% attempted it in 2006. And there have been suicide clusters. Six students committed suicide at Cornell University between September 2009 and March 2010, including two in the same week, in the same department and by the same method, jumping from one of the bridges that criss-cross the Ithaca campus.
- Teens with mental health conditions, including depression, are most at risk. The vast majority of 18-year-olds with depression have never been treated for it, according to ACHA. In a 2008 ACHA study, 25.6% of male college students and 31.7% of female students reported that on at least one occasion in the last year, they had felt so depressed it was difficult to function. Between 8 and 10% reported feeling that way in the last two weeks.
- Twice as many young men, ages 20-24, commit suicide, compared with young women. In teens, ages 17-19, the ratio is even more skewed, with suicide claiming nearly five times the number of young men.
- Additional risk factors include traumatic or stressful life events; a prior suicide attempt; a sense of isolation and lack of support; impulsivity issues; substance abuse issues; poor coping skills; and access to a suicide method.
- Warning signs include academic problems, depression, mood swings, withdrawal, feelings of hopelessness, disregard for personal appearance, increased substance use, increased risk-taking and/or an obsession with death.
- Factors that can help, according to mental health counselors at Arizona State University, include: close personal relationships with friends, family, faculty or staff; resiliency skills; healthy habits, including adequate sleep, diet and physical exercise; and readily accessible health care and counseling services.
- Every college has expanded its mental health counseling services, and suicide and depression awareness programs in recent years. Those efforts include training dormitory resident assistants - Cornell has even trained its dorm custodians - to be on the lookout for troubled students. And on many campuses, they've dramatically increased their stress-reduction programs to help students manage and reduce stress factors before they become unbearable.
- What can parents do? Stay in touch with your college kid. Freshmen especially need to know that the family support they relied on through childhood is still there, even long distance. Chat by phone, IM or Skype. Send care packages. Visit occasionally. Be a touchstone and a calming voice when things get rough. Do not undervalue the importance of sleep, diet, exercise and de-stressing activities. Familiarize yourself with the student health and mental health services available on campus, so you can remind your child of the support available on campus. And be sensitive to the signs when stress may be verging into something else.