College and Teen Suicide Statistics

Troubled teenage girl seated by wall.
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According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), the suicide rate among young adults ages 15-24 has tripled since the 1950s, and suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students.

These young people are often away from home and friends for the first time. They're living with strangers, far from their support systems, and working under intense pressure—with disrupted sleeping, eating, and exercise patterns. You could hardly design a more stressful atmosphere, particularly when depression or other mental health issues enter the picture.

Here's a snapshot of the statistics on college suicides and teen suicide attempts, as well as what some colleges are doing to help.

Who Commits Suicide

In a recent study published in Depression and Anxiety of roughly 67,000 college students from more than 100 institutions, one in five students have had thoughts of suicide, with 9 percent making an attempt and nearly 20 percent reporting self-injury. One in four students reported being diagnosed with a mental illness.

Suicides among girls ages 15 to 19 doubled from 2007 to 2015, when it reached its highest point in 40 years. The suicide rate for boys ages 15 to 19 grew by 30 percent from 2007 to 2015. Twice as many young men, ages 20-24, commit suicide, compared with young women. In teens, ages 17-19, the ratio is even more skewed, with suicide claiming nearly five times the number of young men.

Risk Factors

The primary risk factors that have been identified for teen and adolescent suicide include the following:

  • Major depression
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Severe personality disorders
  • Physical illness
  • Traumatic or stressful life events
  • A prior suicide attempt
  • A sense of isolation and lack of support
  • Impulsivity issues
  • Poor coping skills
  • Access to a suicide method

Warning Signs

Recognizing the warning signs of suicide is one way to protect your teen or adolescent from suicide. According to the Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SA/VE) website, the following may indicate that your loved one urgently needs help:

  • Severe mood swings
  • Disregard for personal appearance
  • Talking or joking about suicide (for example, being reunited with a deceased loved one)
  • Statements of hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness. ("Life is useless." "Everyone would be better off without me." "It doesn't matter. I won't be around much longer anyway." "I wish I could just disappear.")
  • Preoccupation with death (in music, literature, or drawings, letters)
  • Sudden happy or calmer state
  • Withdrawal or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Poor academic performance
  • Unusual visiting or calling people (to say their goodbyes)
  • Giving away possessions or getting affairs in order
  • Self-destructive behavior (alcohol/drug misuse, self-injury or mutilation, promiscuity)
  • Risk-taking behavior (reckless driving, carelessness around bridges, cliffs, or balconies, or walking in front of traffic)
  • Having several accidents resulting in injury
  • Obsession with guns or knives

Those who are passively suicidal or have only vague ideas of wanting to die should still be taken very seriously, and arrangements should be made for them to see a therapist or psychiatrist.

What Colleges Are Doing

In recent years, most colleges have expanded their mental health counseling services, and suicide and depression awareness programs, including training dormitory resident assistants. Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, has even trained its dorm custodians to be on the lookout for troubled students. Many campuses have also increased their stress-reduction programs to help students better manage and reduce stress so it does not become unbearable.

In addition to utilizing these health care and counseling services, students can become more resilient to stress and depression by fostering close personal relationships with friends, family, faculty, or staff and practicing healthy habits like adequate sleep, diet, and physical exercise, according to mental health counselors at Arizona State University.

How Parents and Family Can Help

Even if your child is away from home, there are ways you can help prevent suicide and safeguard their mental health.

Stay Involved

Attend their sporting events, performances, and other activities. Talk to teachers and faculty if you sense that their schoolwork is suffering, their grades are dropping or they quit clubs or organizations on campus.

Keep in Touch

Freshmen especially need to know that the family support they relied on during childhood is still there, even long distance. Use whatever means they are most comfortable with to talk often—text, phone, Facebook chat, or Facetime. 

Ask Open-Ended Questions

If you sense a problem is bothering your teen or college student, don't pry or panic. Ask open-ended questions, listen carefully to their answers, their tone of voice and their willingness to share. Avoid criticism, harsh words or impatience. 

Promote Self-Care

Encourage your teen or young adult to take time to take care of themselves, whether that means reading a good book, watching a movie or taking a daily nap. Send healthy care packages to your college student and make sure your high schoolers have nutritious meals and snacks available. 

Share Your Struggles

Share some of the struggles you had when you were younger. Saying "I've been there" can be the difference between your teen or young adult feeling heard and seen and feeling invisible. They may act like they don't care about what you say or show no interest, but they will most likely hear it anyway.

Monitor Social Media

This pertains to younger teens who are less likely to realize the emotional impact that social media can have on them, including cyberbullying, feelings of inadequacy and finding out that they have been excluded from social activities. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the rise in social media use and the rise in teen depression.

What to Do in a Crisis

Suicidal behavior is an indication of deep psychological pain. Your child is asking for your help. During a crisis situation, be sure to follow these dos and don'ts:

  • Do not leave your child alone.
  • Do not minimize their feelings or trivialize their problems.
  • Do not treat your teen as if they are simply seeking attention.
  • Do reassure your child that they are not a burden to you and they are not weak.
  • Do praise them for having the courage to ask for help

If your teen seems in immediate danger of a suicide attempt, call 911 or your local emergency room and ask for assistance. Because medication and therapy take some time to become effective, it may be necessary for your child to be hospitalized for their own protection.

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