Suicide: Number One Killer of College Students?

According to University of Virginia researchers, the leading cause of student deaths may be suicide. James C. Turner, director of the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia, asked more than 1,150 schools to share their mortality rates for students between the ages of 18 and 24. After analyzing the data, it became apparent that for every 100,000 students there were just over six suicides and fewer than five alcohol-related traffic deaths. This data underscores an increasing realization that depression and mental health issues need just as much, if not more, attention as alcohol abuse and traffic safety.

The MICHIGAN REVIEW compared this data to national causes of death among young people ages 18 to 24 outside of the University system. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the World Health Organization, road traffic crashes are the current leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24 while suicide ranks as the third leading cause of death among young people 15 to 24. Looking back on past figures, it is evident this was not always the case.

“There is something ‘protective’ about college environments,” said Laura Blake-Jones, Dean of Students at the University of Michigan, “The first comprehensive look at suicide rates among college students was the 1997 Big 10 study, which found a rate of 7.5 for every100,000 students.”

This is half the occurrence rate of suicide among a matched sample (on many different factors) among non-college students.

Blake-Jones continued, “Closer to home, the Big 10 Counseling Center Collective is currently engaged in a long-term project to track and analyze correlates with student deaths (e.g., accidents, suicides, natural causes, etc.).  This work will update the 1997 study.”

Given this information, why has suicide recently ranked as the leading cause of death among the university population and what does this say about the way major universities handle depression and mental illness? At this year’s American College Personnel Association’s convention, conversations were held regarding the record-low levels of emotional health among incoming freshman in 2011. Special attention was given to the fact that recently-surveyed most college counselors said that the number of students on campus with “severe psychological problems” is increasing.

Additionally, a study presented to the American Psychological Association found that the number of students on psychiatric medication increased more than 10 percent over the last 10 years. Even though these statistics cannot be fully explained, it is easy to see parallels between these findings and the struggles of college life.

For many young people, college is the first time students sever ties with their parents and experience life on their own. A newfound independence may be invigorating but it can also be very lonely. Students struggle to make friends and find their niche in an unfamiliar environment where they are sometimes seen as just another number, and many become lost in the shuffle. Coupled with being thrust into foreign territory, most students also find academic life challenging and difficult and realize that they must pull all-nighters and work tremendous hours to get the grades that came easy to them in high school. College takes an extensive amount of adjustment and many students cannot fully complete the transition from high school to college without a little help.

It is becoming very difficult for colleges to push mental illness awareness and prevention to the forefront as economic times are getting tougher and endowments are taking hits, some schools don’t have the luxury to keep up with counseling and psychological services.

Still, the importance of the task has kept universities moving forward. “The issue of understanding and preventing student deaths has achieved increased attention in recent years. Part of that understanding comes from alcohol/binge drinking prevention work and suicide prevention work,” said Blake-Jones.

At U-M, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), works hard to manage student’s psychological needs. They provide emergency hotlines, crisis and counseling services, mental health wellness, mental health online screenings, outreach and education as well as many other resources to overwhelmed college students.

CAPS stresses that students talk about their issues in healthy and open ways through making appointments and seeking out others with similar concerns. They tackle everything from depression and anxiety to utilizing better studying techniques and developing coping mechanisms for exam stresses. In these tough times, it is vital that students shy away from being embarrassed or afraid of talking about going to a counseling center. There are many options and no student should remain stressed under a guise of happiness.

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