Worldwide, there are more deaths due to suicide than due to homicides and accidents combined. Approximately 30,000 people die by suicide annually in the United States. Every day, an estimated 80 Americans successfully take their own lives and another 1,500 attempt to take their lives. Every 18 minutes in the United States, a person dies by suicide and an attempted suicide is estimated to occur every minute. Today, suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States. Even more disconcerting is the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in America. This essay discusses the prevalence of suicide among college students, explanations as to why such tragedies occur, and ways to alleviate the issue.
According to a recent study that surveyed 26,000 college students at 70 U.S. college and university institutions, slightly more than half of American college students contemplate suicide at some point in their lives. In this same survey, 15% of the student sample affirmed they had “seriously considered” taking their own lives. Additionally, more than 5% of the student sample reported actually attempting suicide. This rate suggests that, at an average university or college institution with 18,000 undergraduate students, 1,080 would seriously contemplate taking their lives in any given year. According to the American College of Health Association, 1,100 suicides do, in fact, occur on college campuses annually.
There are several explanations as to why suicide is so prevalent among college students. One explanation points to the overload of stress and lack of available resources to cope with stress in college institutions. According to research, one in five college undergraduate students in America reports being constantly stressed.
For many incoming freshmen, college can be a very tough transition. Many students feel pressured to choose a career and succeed. Others feel lost, confused, lonely, anxious, and inadequate. Additionally, many struggle to adapt to a new environment. All of these factors can lead to stress and can eventually turn into depression.
According to research, “The primary reason for suicidal thoughts is to end emotional or physical pain.” The second reason, according to the same study, is issues regarding romantic relationships. The third is a generalized desire or need to end their lives. The fourth is problems with school and academics.
Although all of these explanations play a role in an individual’s decision to terminate their life, none is considered the primary reason as to why a college student, or anyone at all, would decide to take his or her own life. Instead, the primary cause for suicide among college students and all suicides in general is untreated depression. Research indicates that half of students who suffer from suicidal thoughts do not seek counseling or treatment for their distress. Explanations as to why students do not seek help include shame, embarrassment, a lack of knowledge about depression and available resources, and despondence.
Depression, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), is a mental disorder whereby “people may experience a lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.” According to the APA, “depression is the most common mental disorder.” Luckily, it is manageable and treatable through a combination of therapy and medication.
Data obtained through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggest that depression affects at least 19 million Americans aged 18 and older annually. This number represents roughly 10% of U.S. adults. Research indicates that more American adults suffer from depression than coronary heart disease (7 million), cancer (6 million), and AIDS (200,000) combined.
According to the American College of Health Association, 15% of U.S. college students were diagnosed with depression in 2007, an increase of 5% compared to four years earlier. More than 90% of the youth who successfully commit suicide had at least one mental disorder or psychiatric illness at the time of death. Roughly 50% of the time, this disorder was present but often went undetected for at least two years. “The most common diagnosis among youth are depression, substance abuse and conduct disorders.”
According to data obtained from the American College Health Association, roughly 16% of college women and 10% of men in college report having been diagnosed by a professional with depression at some point in their lives. Additionally, in a national survey of college professors, 84% saw an increase in students with mental disorders or psychological problems over the previous five years.
Correlated with depression and suicide among both college students and the general population are substance abuse issues. For example, in a survey about binge drinking reported by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, approximately 44% of students interviewed reported “drinking heavily” within the two weeks before taking the survey. The majority of researchers define binge drinking as “the consumption of at least five alcoholic drinks in a single sitting for men and four for women.” In 2005, approximately 10.8 million individuals aged 12-20 (28.2% of this age group) reported drinking alcohol within the previous month. Roughly 7.2 million (18.8%) were considered binge drinkers, and another 2.3 million (6%) were deemed heavy drinkers.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, more males than females report binge drinking–21.3% versus 16.1%, respectively. Moreover, college students ages 18-22 at full-time colleges or universities are more inclined to binge drink or drink heavily than their peers who are not enrolled in an accredited university. Even more alarming is that 48% of college drinkers interviewed in a survey reported that “drinking to get drunk” is an important reason to drink. Nearly one in four of the students in this sample consumed alcohol at least 10 times per month, and another 29% reported being inebriated at minimum 3 times per month. Furthermore, one in three college students and three in five frequent binge drinkers meet the APA’s criteria for alcohol abuse; one in 17 college students and one in five frequent binge drinkers meet the criteria for alcohol dependence. Overall, according to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, 19% of college students in the United States aged 18-24 meet the criteria for alcohol dependence or abuse.
After establishing an understanding of suicide prevalence rates among college students, explanations as to why it occurs, and major correlates of suicide, it is important to understand when suicidal indicators typically surface themselves as well as the warning signs one should be cognizant about. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide typically emerges as a substantial problem during the high school years, increases in frequency among people between the ages of 20 and 24, and shows a persistently increased incidence throughout the next two decades of life. Some warning signals that a person may be contemplating suicide have been identified: a previous attempt at suicide, frequent discussions about suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, feeling despondent and helpless, depression, changes in behavior and personality, giving away favorite possessions, and a loss of interest in friends and hobbies.
Several steps have been taken to reduce the incidence of suicide in young adults, but even more avenues must be explored if we are to further alleviate the risk of suicide among college students. One example of the measures employed to address the issue can be seen in the efforts of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP) in conjunction with the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH). The NYASP and OMH have developed workshops, known as SPEAK Workshops, that confront the issue of depression and suicide among college suicide. These workshops present information about the prevalence of suicide and depression, signs and symptoms of depression, signs for suicidal behavior, and available resources. The first such workshop was developed to serve faculty, staff and counselors, or other professionals deemed qualified to monitor the behavior of college students. The second workshop utilized trained psychology graduate students to train and educate other students. Having graduate students lead these events has greatly increased acceptance of these workshops, as the students perceive their trainers as classmates and peers as opposed to figures of authority. Fourteen colleges and universities in New York have participated in this workshop training.
Other steps that can be taken include making high school students take a mandatory depression survey annually. Additionally, doctors should discuss depression with high school students when they have an appointment, and pamphlets about depression and suicide should be passed out in high schools and made readily available in physicians’ offices. Furthermore, incoming college freshman should be given pamphlets about depression and suicide in their university packets at every school. Most importantly, the stigma of discussing mental health and suicide must be eliminated, and medical professionals along with educational professionals should be at the forefront of this effort. Students should be encouraged to seek help, openly discuss depression and suicidal thoughts, and be reassured that they have nothing to be ashamed of.
Implementation of suicide prevention programs on all college campuses is essential. Ideally, such a program should include leadership to promote suicide prevention and mental health, screening, crisis management, educational seminars, mental health services, life skills development, means restrictions, social marketing, and social network promotion.
Suicide among college students in the United States is clearly a serious issue. It is a problem for a large number of youth and young adults in college as well as those not in college (7.95 suicides per 100,000 15- to 19-year-olds, 11.97 suicides per 100,000 20- to 24-year-olds, and 12.56 suicides per 100,000 25- to 29-year-olds). Untreated depression is the primary cause for suicide. Depression can be managed and treated if someone takes the necessary step to seek help. Finally, college campuses must implement suicide prevention programs and indefatigably work toward educating their students, faculty, and staff members on this crucial issue.
- Durkin, K. F., Wolfe, S. E., & Lewis, K. (2008). Binge drinking on college campus. In A. Thio, T. C. Calhoun, & A. Conyers, A. (Eds.), Readings in deviant behavior (5th ed., pp. 233-236). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
- Facts and Figures. (n.d.). American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved February 2, 2010. http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures
- Johnson, H. (2008, August 18). Half of college students consider suicide. MSNBC. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26272639/ns/health-mental_health/
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2004). Promoting mental health and preventing suicide in college and university settings. Newton, MA: Education Development Center.