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College Students and the Risk of Suicide

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Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students and the third leading cause of death among all youth 15–24 years old. In the U.S., only accidents and homicides claim more young lives.

The number one cause of suicide for college students (and all suicides) is untreated depression. Nearly everyone has felt down in the dumps, gotten the blues, or been in a funk now and then. These periods are usually brief and pass without too much effort on the part of the individual experiencing the mood. Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder are more serious and potentially more dangerous. These depressive disorders are conditions that are diagnosed by a mental health professional based on an assessment of history, symptoms and consequences. A recent survey indicates that one in five college students believe that their depression level is higher than it should be, yet only 6% would seek help. Suicide risk is about 20 times higher for those with a depressive illness. This risk increases based on the number of depressive episodes experienced – the more depression you experience, the more likely you will commit suicide. A dependence on alcohol or drugs in addition to being depressed creates an even higher suicide risk.Fortunately, treatment for depression is successful in alleviating symptoms over 80% of the time.

Many people at some time in their lives think about committing suicide. Most decide to live, because they eventually come to realize that their crisis is temporary and death is permanent. Some people having a crisis sometimes perceive their dilemma as inescapable and feel an utter loss of control.

Suicide and suicidal behaviors come from a complex interaction among individual (psychological, genetic, biological), social (family, peer group, cultural), and environmental (e.g., firearm availability) factors. These factors can be divided into two categories – risk factors and warning signs. Risk factors may make an individual more susceptible to suicidal thinking and suicidal behavior. Warning signs are factors that may indicate an individual has become suicidal.

  • Risk Factors
    • Prior history of suicidal behavior or attempts
    • Family history of suicide or suicide attempts
    • Suicidal behavior of a friend or colleague
    • Mental health problems like depression or substance abuse
    • Family history of depression or substance abuse
    • Impulsive, aggressive, or antisocial behavior
    • Easy access to lethal methods (like firearms)
    • Interpersonal isolation
    • History of abuse or family violence
  • Warning Signs
    • Talks about suicide, death, or having no reason to live
    • Preoccupation with death and dying
    • Trouble eating or sleeping
    • Drastic changes in behavior
    • Withdraws from friends and activities
    • Loss of interest in hobbies, work, school, etc.
    • Prepares for death by making out a will and final arrangements
    • Gives away prized possessions
    • Takes unnecessary risks
    • Relationship difficulties including a recent loss or threat of significant loss
    • Loss of interest in personal appearance
    • Increase in drug or alcohol use
    • Expresses a sense of hopelessness
    • Is faced with a situation of humiliation or failure
    • Performance difficulties
    • Legal or financial trouble
    • Is unwilling to “connect” with potential help

If you see any of the above symptoms in someone, try to help them. It all begins with communication – listening and asking. Be direct, open, and matter-of-fact about suicide and your concerns. Be willing to listen to their response without being judgmental. Accept their feelings and don’t get into a debate about whether suicide is right or wrong.

It is very important to act on the information you receive. You have to do something. Show interest and support for the person. Be available. Help them locate resources for help (the counseling center, local mental health centers, etc). Don’t promise to keep things secret – you may need to get outside help. If you feel their situation is an emergency, don’t leave them alone. Remove all methods of suicide if possible, such as guns or pills. Contact someone immediately – the emergency room, a suicide hotline (for a local referral), or the police. Stay with them until they are in a safe place.

Youth suicide rates vary widely among different racial and ethnic groups. Caucasian men and women account for over 90% of all completed suicides. Native Americans have the highest suicide rate among all 15-24 year olds. Suicide rates for African Americans are growing faster than other ethnic groups. Asian American women have the highest suicide rates among women ages 15 to 24.

There are also differences based on gender. Men commit suicide more than four times as often as women, but women attempt suicide about three times as often as men. Suicide by firearm is the most common method for both men and women and accounts for more than half of American suicides.

There are many myths related to suicide. Do not be swayed by popular misconceptions about suicide. Some of these misconceptions include:

Myth – Suicidal people want to die. Fact – Even the most severely depressed person is ambivalent about death. They often fluctuate between wanting to live and wanting to die until the very last moment. Most suicidal people do not want death – They want the pain to stop.

Myth – If you talk about suicide to someone who has thought of it you may trigger them to act on their thoughts. Fact – Talking about suicide does not make one more suicidal. Helping someone to acknowledge their problems is a first step in solving them. Your expression of concern might help them to feel better about themselves or their situation

Myth – Suicide often happens without any warning. Fact – Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. Do not ignore suicide clues. Statements like “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead” or “I can’t see any way out” may indicate serious suicidal feelings no matter how casually or jokingly said.

Myth – Suicide is just a way to get attention. Fact – Suicide is about emotional pain and the inability to see an alternative way to stop it. While a suicidal individual often feels lonely and longs for someone to understand, getting that kind of attention is not the goal of suicide. It is about stopping the pain.

Myth – People who talk about suicide don’t kill themselves. Fact – 8 out of 10 people who commit suicide have spoken about their intent before killing themselves.

Only 17.6% of college students nationwide reported that they had received information on suicide prevention from their school. This must change. Campuses across the country are reviewing their suicide prevention plans. Most are including detailed plans for early intervention, prevention initiatives for identifying at-risk students and referring them for necessary care, and crisis intervention programs. One law that has been instrumental to youth suicide prevention efforts is the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act (GLSMA). This is the first piece of legislation to provide federal funds specifically for youth, adolescent and college age suicide prevention. So far, 55 colleges and universities have received grants through the GLSMA.


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Nora almost 7 years ago Nora


A short film by some young people who make a strong point about suicide and the efforts to prevent it by people who themselves vulnerable. It's dark humor, but also very sincere. I'm a teacher and feel it is very useful because students respond to the humor, which invites them to develop a real response to the underlying, serious issues.

Stamp Out Suicide! almost 10 years ago Stamp Out Suicide!


Good article. The guys from the Alive Campaign are also doing great things to increase awareness and the Stamp Out Suicide! website at www.stampoutsuicide.org.uk also provides useful information, particularly for people living in the UK and Ireland.