A recent study found that suicidal thoughts among US college students is more common than might be expected, after more than half of 26,000 students surveyed at 70 colleges and universities reported having at least one episode of suicidal thinking at some point in their lives. 15 per cent of students also reported having seriously considered attempting suicide and more than 5 per cent said they had tried to commit suicide at least once. The researchers suggested that different kinds of help should be offered along a continuum that starts with early thoughts about suicide and not just when there is a crisis.

The study is the work of psychologist Dr David J Drum and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin and was presented on Sunday at the 116th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Boston.

The researchers analysed data from a a web-based survey conducted by the National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education during Spring 2006 that asked questions about suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

Colleges surveyed ranged in size from 820 to over 58,000 students, while the average was just over 17,500.

The average age of the 15,010 undergraduates in the survey was 22 years. 62 per cent were female, 79 per cent were white and 5 per cent described their sexual orientation as gay, bisexual or undecided.

The average age of the 11,441 graduates in the survey was 30 years. 60 percent were female and 72 per cent were white, with 6 per cent described their sexual orientation as bisexual, gay or undecided.

The results showed that:
  • 6 per cent of undergraduates and 4 percent of graduates said they had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months.

  • Based on this proportion, an average college with 18,000 students has over 1,000 undergraduates seriously thinking about suicide at least once during any one year.

  • About two thirds of those who think about suicide think about it more than once a year.

  • Most students said their episode of suicidal thinking was intense and brief, with 50 per cent lasting no more than a day.

  • 14 per cent of undergraduates and 8 per cent of graduate students who had seriously considered committing suicide in the last 12 months had attempted to do so.

  • More than 50 per cent of students who had recently experienced a suicidal crisis had not, for several reasons, sought professional help or told anyone about it.

  • 19 per cent of undergraduates and 28 per cent of graduates who had attempted suicide needed medical attention. Half of them had tried to kill themselves with a drug overdose.

  • Both undergraduates and graduates gave reasons for suicidal thinking in the following order: (1) wanting relief from emotional or physical pain, (2) problems with relationships, (3) desire to end their lives, (4) academic and school problems.
Drum and colleagues said that suicidal thoughts were not uncommon and akin to substance abuse, depression and eating disorders. They suggested that the current treatment models, which only respond to students once they have reached crisis point, do not do enough to reduce all the forms of suicide behaviour that occur on college campuses.

They recommended a new model that addresses a continuum of suicidal thoughts and behaviours so that interventions occur at different points along it rather than reacting to crises. The survey for instance can match students who are at risk, or who have already had episodes of suicidal thinking, to appropriate treatment and thus reduce the numbers that go further along the continuum by stopping the progression from thinking about to actually attempting suicide.

Suicide prevention needs everyone to be involved, from campus administrators to student leaders to advisers to faculty, parents, and counsellors. Quite a different scenario to the one that commonly occurs where only the suicidal student and a handful of mental health professionals are involved. Involving more people would:

"Reduce the percentage of students who engage in suicidal thinking, who contemplate how to make an attempt and who continue to make attempts" said Drum.

"Key Findings From the Suicide Ideation Survey."
Adryon Burton Denmark, University of Texas at Austin.

"Defining the New Paradigm for Addressing Suicidality."
David J. Drum, University of Texas at Austin.

Both papers were presented at Session: 4162 on Sunday, August 17, 2008.
116th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA).
Convention and Exhibition Center, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Source: APA.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD