College and University Blog

Suicide and Suicidal Behavior Among College Students

Why is suicide the 2nd leading cause of death among college students? Major life transitions—such as leaving home and going away to college—may exacerbate existing psychological problems or trigger new ones. Add leaving family and friends to this can deepen depression and/or increase anxiety.

Nearly 1,100 suicides will occur on college campuses this year. Many more students think about suicide or make a suicide plan. In the past fifty years, the suicide rate for those age 15-24 increased by over 200%. About 12 people aged 15-24 will commit suicide today – that is one about every two hours.

Caucasians account for over 90% of all completed suicides. Although Caucasians are twice as likely to commit suicide as African Americans, the rate of suicide is growing faster among young African Americans than among Caucasians. Suicide rates from 1980-1995 increased 93% for African American females (age 15-24) and 214% for African American males (age 15-24). Native Americans have the highest suicide rate among all 15-24 year olds. Asian American women have the highest suicide rates among women ages 15 to 24. Suicide risks peak in the 15-24 age group for Native Americans and African-Americans. For European-Americans (non-Hispanic), Hispanics, and Asian/Pacific Islanders the highest suicide rates occur in those over age 65.

Men commit suicide more than four times as often as women, but women attempt suicide about three times as often as men. For young adults ages 15-19, five times as many males as females commit suicide. For young adults ages 20-24, seven times as many males as females commit suicide. Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death for American men. It is the 19th leading cause of death for American women. Suicide by firearm is the most common method for both men and women.

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

Some common risk factors include:

  • Prior history of suicidal behavior
  • 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
  • Easy access to lethal methods (like firearms)
  • Interpersonal isolation
  • Impulsive, aggressive or antisocial behaviors
  • History of abuse or family violence

Some common warning signs include:

  • Talks about suicide, death or having no reason to live
  • Is preoccupied with death and dying
  • Has trouble eating or sleeping
  • Experiences drastic changes in behavior
  • Withdraws from friends or social activities
  • Loses 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
  • Loses interest in their personal appearance
  • Increases their use of alcohol or drugs
  • 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 helpers

Why do people, especially the young, take their own lives?" The most common factor is mental illness. Mental illness is often heightened by a common occurrence on college campuses – drinking. Alcohol and mental illness is a bad, often lethal, combination. Many people with depression drink, or use drugs, to relieve their symptoms. They reduce inhibitions and increase risk-taking, possibly increasing self-destructiveness. Nihilism may also be a factor in suicide. To put it simply, today’s youth have more difficulty in identifying something that provides purpose and meaning to their lives. The institutions that used to provide meaning, such as church or family, have less influence on us today.

Colleges are not equipped to be mental health centers, but they are doing what they can. Most schools will refer students to long-term care if their mental health issues are extensive. Some issues can be cared for at the counseling center of the school. At some schools, a suicide attempt is an honor code violation and a student can be forced to leave school if they refuse treatment. Some schools have successful suicide prevention programs where they are required to undergo mandatory assessment and services. Unfortunately, suicide prevention programs only exist in a few communities.

The government is doing what it can. The U.S. Surgeon General has made suicide one of his priorities. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act (GLSMA) is the first piece of legislation to provide federal funds specifically for youth, adolescent and college age suicide prevention. Included in the bill is a total of $31 million over five years to fund the matching-grant programs for colleges and universities to help raise awareness about youth suicide. These funds are also available to enable those institutions to train students and faculty to identify and intervene when youths are in crisis. So far, 55 colleges and universities have received grants through the GLSMA.

Efforts to promote mental health and prevent suicide in colleges and universities must respond to the needs of each campus and its student population. We as individuals must also promote good mental health. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call 1-800-SUICIDE immediately.