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Parents often envision college as a crowning achievement for their children, and the numbing subject of suicide is a discordant challenge to that enthusiasm. Parents are much more prone to caution their young adults about the danger of not completing their homework than to confront the possibility that their child feels despair—a considerably more lethal danger.
There are many reasons for the lack of conversation around suicide. Colleges are increasingly overwhelmed by the emotional needs of their students, as well as fearful of the negative stigma suicide attaches to their college reputation—so it’s not front and center. And parents are both uninformed and unprepared about how to respond to this topic which often feels unrelated to their children or to which parents feel in denial. In fact, there is no organized system for colleges to report student deaths and parents are unsure of how to navigate this conversation.
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Is there a higher rate of suicide currently or are we just hearing more about it? A CDC report that came out within the past year shows suicide rates have increased by 241 percent across almost all demographic groups in the past 15 years.2
Here are some facts regarding college suicide:
· Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students.
· Over half of college students have had thoughts about suicide.
· Twice as many young men, ages 20-24, die by suicide, compared with young women. In teens, ages 17-19, the ratio is even greater, with suicide claiming nearly five times the number of young men as women.
· Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, but men more likely to die by suicide.
· There are over 1,100 suicides at colleges per year—and those numbers may be much greater as attributions for college suicide are often minimized, with some sources reporting that an estimated 1,500 college students die by suicide each year.3
· One in 12 college students make a plan to suicide during their college career.
· 1.5 out of 100 students have actually attempted suicide.
· There were more than twice as many suicides (44,193) in the US as there were homicides (17,793)4.
Parents are often unaware of the distress felt by their college kids, whether that’s related to the weakness of the emotional bond or the students’ choice to manage life alone and not impose on parents. Authentic connections, however, are an evident antidote to the loneliness and despair reported by suicidal persons. This subject appears to be the most significant area to improve as college students reporting suicidal ideation identify the following as their greatest difficulties:
· Physical and Mental Illnesses
· Academic Pressure
· Family Conflicts
· Financial Pressure
· Loss of a Relationship
· Sexual Minorities
Among some of the initial results from a current National Surveys College Suicide for College Students and Parents* (See collegesuicide.com), comparing parent and student responses revealed the following:
· Most of the college students who attempted suicide described anxiety, depression, and feeling overwhelmed by academic workload as the major stressors in their life.
· Most parents believed that “parents and friends” to be most critical in stopping suicidal enactment; students agree in saying that, if the “darkness had not set in too strong,” “love of family, friends, and pets were better at preventing students from acting out their suicidal thoughts than medication and therapy.”
· In both the parents and college student surveys, women responded more than 90 percent of the time. Although men are most vulnerable to suicide, men are less prone to communicate about suicide, as men are not encouraged to express vulnerability and when men express vulnerability they are often shamed.
· “Alcohol abuse” was identified by both parents and college students as a critical precursor—although college students also detailed additional specific illicit drugs as significant.
· “Mental health,” “family stress,” and “financial stress,” respectively, were identified as the most problematic matters for students during college, while parents identified such concerns only half as much as significant to the distress carried by their children, highlighting “the loss of a relationship” as most distressful.
· While most parents stated that they had discussed suicide with their children (87 percent), college students stated that they had not discussed suicide with their parents (60 percent).
Adding to the communications barrier are laws of privacy that prevent colleges and universities from notifying parents about serious student difficulties, even as counselors and school officials are aware of serious concerns; colleges and universities appear to inherit and retain the responsibility to manage both emotional issues and suicidal situations. This is not without an identity struggle for schools—are colleges telling parents we’ll take care of your child in total? Should school officials tell parents if their child is suicidal? Is the college domain exclusively academic? And can colleges negotiate a role somewhere in between?
Most students with suicide ideation reported that they had not gone to college counseling services to address their concerns. Of that group, while some students described positive support from counseling staff following one session, others identified a lack of perceived confidentiality, long waits, limited sessions, and incompetent service as major reasons for not returning. Another study in 2013 found that 86 percent of the students who committed suicide had not accessed campus counseling services.5
Training staff on campuses concerning suicide intervention is a basic step to provide the most immediate help to students at suicide risk. In a survey of 70 U.S. colleges and universities, over half the students surveyed reported some form of suicidal thinking in their lives with 18 percent stating that they had seriously considered attempting suicide during their lifetime.6
In addition to presenting this topic, a series of blogs will follow featuring insights from the surveys that address causes, the parents’ role, gaining assistance, and prevention considerations regarding college suicide, in addition to recommendations about how colleges and universities can best manage college suicide—which is nothing less than an epidemic.
*The National Surveys College Suicide for College Student an Parents has had over 300 respondents to date. Participants self-selected to participate from around the country, representing a cross-section of culture, race, sexual orientation; however, not gender. Consistent with research on suicide, relatively few men responded, under 10 percent.