The college student suicide crisis is a growing concern across US campuses. While obtaining a college degree is an important goal for many high school graduates, the realities of academic pressures and adjustment to college life can push some students beyond their coping strategies. To quell the tide of suicidal risk, colleges are reevaluating their policies, interventions, and overall approach to addressing mental health needs on campus.
Read on to learn about statistics and warning signs of suicide. Then, review the key factors driving suicide risk for college students. Finally, understand how colleges are responding to reduce suicide in college.
The suicide rate in college students has been climbing steadily for years, as evidenced by some sobering statistics.
Students from marginalized backgrounds carry more unseen burdens (economic, psychological, cultural), putting 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.
Depression and suicidal ideation in college students are more common than most realize. While it is not always possible to predict or prevent suicide, many students show signs of suicidal risk.
While suicidal behavior is challenging to predict, multiple studies have established that individuals enduring high levels of prolonged academic pressures are more at risk for suicide for several reasons.
Hopelessness occurs when an individual develops pessimistic expectations, believing that adverse circumstances are fixed and cannot be changed or improved. This mindset shift is significant because, for some, hopelessness mentally opens the door to more desperate methods of escaping pain, such as death. A survey of over 50,000 college students in 2019 indicated that over 57% reported feeling hopeless in the previous 12 months. While hopelessness alone does not mean an individual will have or act on suicidal thoughts, this percentage means a significant number of students have at least one risk factor for suicide within a year.
Another significant factor that may be more predictive of suicide is the severity of depressive symptoms. In one study, researchers examining the predictive value of several clinical depressive symptoms found that the highest severity scores aligned with more suicide attempts. While aiming for symptom remission is ideal, reducing symptom severity may be enough to significantly lower suicide risk. Symptoms are more challenging to address at higher levels of severity, so identifying and intervening at earlier signs of depression is critical for keeping suicide risk low.
Mandatory leave of absence has been part of suicide response protocols for many years. But this practice has been scrutinized as suicides have increased on campuses nationwide. Some colleges are now exploring more flexible options that create a pathway for recovery with less disruption at school.
Some colleges have imposed a mandatory leave of absence for students facing a suicide crisis while in school. Students may also fear being expelled if they seek help for suicide, with one Standford student reporting being threatened with expulsion if she did not take a yearlong mandatory leave after reporting suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, college staff responding to a quickly developing situation may apply these well-meaning policies without enough regard for other potential strategies.
While these policies may intend to remove at-risk students from chronically stressful situations, students may be left with more worries and uncertainties, such as resuming their academic plans and reintegrating into the college environment. Students on long periods of leave may also experience stigma, adjustment problems, and other disruptions they may have otherwise avoided if they had been quickly reintegrated into their usual school routines. At-risk students may also feel like their college view them as a liability rather than an individual needing care, leaving them more vulnerable than ever.
Thankfully, the tide on expulsion and involuntary leave is turning, with colleges finally expanding the suicide response in more supportive and effective ways. Stanford University, a school noted for its high standards, made a big statement recently by removing the requirement for involuntary leave when addressing mental health crises. One report indicates that while these incidents do occur, nowadays, most colleges find ways to support students in need with minimal disruption, including brief voluntary leaves of absence. College institutions are finally expanding their response to suicide risk in more supportive and effective ways.
The stigma of asking for mental health support has been eroding over the last decade. And while this is a positive development, it took the COVID-19 pandemic to spur significant progress in psychological services across US college campuses. Rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have been rising, taking a notable jump in 2020. Suicide deaths among individuals aged 18-25 years have taken a similar trajectory, escalating significantly in the last fifteen years.
In response, colleges have expanded access to services and begun offering more creative options for helping students connect and find support. Likewise, some researchers consider suicide a public health issue, advocating for several broad population-based strategies. This public health approach addresses the situation in four ways:
Infusing opportunities for life skills training and social connection in classroom settings, residence halls, fitness programs, student organizations can all help prevent suicides attempts and completion.
Identifying students most at risk for depression, adjustment issues, and suicide, such as new students in resident halls also help catching early warning signs. Additionally, promoting public psychoeducation campaigns about potential signs of depression, self-harm, and suicide risk help recognize potential cases of suicide.
Providing multiple interventions for depression and suicide risk, such as 24-hour crisis lines, counseling services, and support groups offer multiple options for suicide support. Implementing public awareness campaigns about accessing services can also contribute to overall support, as does training students and staff to effectively encourage at-risk students to seek help.
Restricting access to harmful means, such as firearms, toxic chemicals, or dangerous locations can reduce the accessibility of certain methods of self-harm. Similarly, following all crisis management procedures in response to suicide-related incidents involving students can protect students from hurting themselves, or others.
The growing suicide rate in college students reflects a mental health crisis in youth and young adults. Colleges nationwide are reviewing their crisis response policies, finding ways to support and intervene before suicidal risk develops. With a deeper exploration of interventions and academic flexibility, colleges aim to create a safer and more empathetic college environment for all.