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Suicide Prevention for College Students

College represents so much to a student — the opportunity to start a fresh chapter in their lives and work toward their professional and personal goals. But it also represents a significant shift in lifestyle and habits; it is a period of transitions and lots of change. While some students can weather through the difficult times, there is no doubt these challenges have the potential to become too much.

A supportive group console a woman who is facing away from the camera, she looks distraught.The New York Times took a look at the pressure college students put on themselves and found that students who excelled in high school expect to do the same in college. While this is a common aspiration, it can cause them struggle. Students may worry about larger class sizes, more challenging curriculum, deadlines and difficulty managing time, as well as finances, student loans, and keeping up with extracurricular activities or a job. Combined, this can have profound effects on mental health… and in the worst-case scenario, can lead to the possibility of suicidal thoughts.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-43 in the U.S. This daunting statistic leads to so many other questions too. NAMI states, “A 2018 study found that at any time within the last 12 months, 41% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function and 62% felt overwhelming anxiety.” It is also estimated that one in five college students has a substance use disorder. 

Mental Health America of California says many forms of mental illness first emerge during the college years, often coinciding with young adults’ first time living away from home. In fact, more than one in three college students have reported that they have been “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

Mental Health America of California goes even further in their findings about college students and mental health. According to the 2016 Annual Report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s (CCMH), there was a 5% increase in college enrollment, nationwide, accompanied by 30% increase in demand for mental health services, between 2010 and 2016. And of those students in treatment at college counseling centers, approximately:

  • One in two have received psychological services in the past five years
  • One in 10 have been psychiatrically hospitalized before
  • One in four report engaging in self-injurious behavior, such as cutting
  • One in three have seriously considered suicidth

What Families, Students, and Colleges Can Do

A woman comforting her friend with a hug.Suicides are preventable. Improving mental health and trauma literacy is a critical step in decreasing suicides and recognizing the warning signs to get people the help they need as early as possible. Students, parents and family, and colleges and community organizations can make a commitment to enhance their mental health literacy by using any of the following resources provided in Missouri.

Training programs like Mental Health First Aid Missouri, Missouri Suicide Prevention Network, Missouri Ask, Listen, Refer or Missouri Department of Mental Health Trauma Informed Care E-Learning Course are available to the public and can be taken by anyone with access to internet.

NAMI outlines these actions that can be taken by students, parents and family members, and colleges to lower the risk of suicide: 

  • Address concerns as soon as possible. Depression and teenage angst look similar, but if you think something is indeed wrong, be up front with your child about it — this will increase the likelihood of early recognition and diagnosis of an issue and improve treatment outcomes.
  • Encourage your child to talk about their mental health challenges with a counselor, family member or trusted adult. Fear of overreaction is a reason why some students may not feel comfortable speaking to parents. Be supportive and receptive to these discussions and how they can help get treatment.
  • If students have a pre-existing mental health condition, help create a college transition plan that outlines treatment continuity.
  • Parents and family members should be in contact with the campus counseling center if HIPAA and FERPA waivers are obtained from the student.
  • Drive home the importance of self-care and where to go on campus for emotional and academic support. Connect with fellow parents on college parent portals, Facebook groups and other online forums to discuss ways to get involved and advocate for resources and programming that address student mental health.
  • Discuss stories in news and media to have preventative conversations with your child about mental health, overdose or suicide deaths. They probably have thoughts, opinions and concerns they would share with you if asked. You may learn more about your child’s own mental health or substance use in the process.
  • Make a commitment to learn about mental health literacy to have a better understanding of what to look for and how to talk about mental health, suicide and substance use.
  • Students should be aware of and know how to recognize signs of mental health issues in order to help their fellow classmates or get help themselves. Help could include practicing self-care and being supportive to friends and classmates.
  • Talk, talk, talk! Students are more likely to talk with another student about their distress rather than with an older adult. Students should utilize on-campus student mental health resources and advocate for support and programming on campus.
  • Improve your mental health and trauma literacy by taking courses to learn more about mental health, suicide and trauma recovery. Resources may be available on campus, through the campus course catalog or through online resources.
  • Identify students who are at risk for mental health illness, alcohol abuse and drug use problems. Colleges should provide assistance to support the transition from high school to college.
  • Support social connections on campus that are aimed at promoting inclusivity between students who feel disconnected or isolated and students who are traditionally marginalized or at higher risk.
  • Foster an environment that makes it easy and comfortable for students to ask for help. There should be easy access to mental health resources and support.
  • Providing on-campus access to substance abuse and mental health services is vital.
  • Create an institutional response to student suicide, death or emergency. Crisis management procedures, such as access to emergency services or local and national crisis resources, should always be in place.
  • Support education around vital life skills, such as how social- emotional and physical wellness can impact academic success.
  • Provide training opportunities for faculty and staff to learn more about mental health, suicide prevention and trauma sensitive schools.

Seeking Help

Make sure your child knows that help is just a call or text away. Mental health support and crisis intervention are always available with the 988 Crisis Line or Crisis Text Line. Just text MO SAFE” or HOME” to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S. to speak with a trained crisis counselor via a secure online platform. Through texting, the counselor can help talk through issues, including financial-related stress. The Crisis Text Line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

HappierU also has many resources to help. Visit the Show Me Hope Crisis Counseling Program’s YouTube page or short videos providing tips, advice and exercises anyone can do to manage and reduce stress, promote positive personal growth, and help you live a happier life using science-based methods.

This article was written for Journey to College on behalf of the Happier U initiative in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Mental Health and Show Me Hope Crisis Counseling Program, funded by Federal Emergency Management Administration and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Views and opinions contained in the publication do not necessarily reflect those of SAMHSA or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and should not be construed as such.

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