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College Students and the Risk of Suicide

written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 4/29/2010

Suicide is a tough subject, but one that affects the lives of many college-age students. Find out who is at risk, what the warning signs are, and how to look for resources on your campus.

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    College Students and Suicide

    College is hard on almost everyone. It’s a time of changes and transitions, and brings many new demands and responsibilities. For most college students it’s the first time they’ve lived away from home, and they have to adjust to being without their family. Many friends, familiar places and people get left behind, removing the student from his or her established social network.

    Of course, most students adjust to college fairly quickly and learn to enjoy its new opportunities. Clubs and activities are numerous, full of potential friends and social networks. Some students are glad to be away from home, and don’t have to make much of an adjustment at all. But especially for those already struggling with problems like depression, lack of self-esteem, or isolation, college can be just one more burden that seems like too much to deal with.

    Though we don’t like to think about it, suicide is a real problem with young people and especially on college campuses. According to a news article on, one survey revealed that over half of college students in America have thought about committing suicide at one point, and 15 percent have “seriously considered” it. Most troubling of all, over 5 percent of students had attempted suicide at least once. Suicide is the second highest cause of death among college students, and is something we must be aware of, particularly for those of us who are or know such students.

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    Who is at Risk?

    Anyone can attempt suicide, but some are more likely to try due to their circumstances and/or mental state. The following populations are at higher risk for suicide than the average college student:

    • Students who have attempted suicide before—this is the best predictor of a future suicide attempt.
    • Students with depression—depression is especially common among teenagers and those in their early twenties, particularly girls. Depression can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, and self-blame, all of which can contribute to a risk for suicide.
    • Students with any other psychological disorder—from bipolar disorder to OCD to schizophrenia, those with any kind of disorder are particularly vulnerable to suicide.
    • Students operating under a high level of stress—much like depression, this can lead to feelings of hopelessness and being overwhelmed.
    • Students without a lot of (or any) friends—social connections are incredibly important for our mental well-being. Lack of social support puts students at risk for suicide as well as a host of other problems.
    • Students who have recently experienced a breakup—this blow to well-being and self-esteem can push someone over the edge.
    • Students who have experienced a traumatic event like the loss of a loved one or abuse.

    These are not the only at-risk groups, nor does membership in one of these groups necessarily mean a student will consider suicide. But they are important factors to be aware of.

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    Suicide and Depression in College Students: What You Need to KnowMany people aren’t aware of the high rate of suicide in college students today. Young people are at risk for suicide already, and college is a time of stresses and responsibilities that affects everyone in different ways. For some it can present a challenge too big to handle. In this article we discuss suicide and suicide attempts on college campuses and what you can do to help prevent it. On this page we cover a few warning signs of suicide and then talk about where to find help.
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    Warning Signs

    Suicides without warning are very rare—almost everyone who attempts or succeeds at committing suicide shows a number of signs first. These signs may be conscious pleas for help, or unconscious actions and behaviors. Following is a list of some of the most common warning signs as well as those that apply most to college students.

    • Talking about suicide or wanting to die
    • Giving away possessions
    • Sudden changes in personality and/or behavior patterns (eating/sleeping habits, etc.)
    • Overuse of alcohol or other drugs, and other reckless behavior
    • Depression, sadness, and withdrawal from other people and from formerly enjoyed activities
    • Neglecting school work or other responsibilities, particularly if they were previously quite conscientious
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    Finding Help

    Though students at risk for suicide might not think so, they are not alone. Colleges and communities offer resources and supports for students who are having difficulties adjusting to college or going through circumstances that feel overwhelming. Become familiar with the support systems offered by your (or your student’s) college or university, which may include the following:

    • Tutoring centers: these probably won’t help with students already considering suicide, but attending tutoring for difficult classes can help reduce college stress before it becomes too much to deal with.
    • Counseling centers: most if not all colleges and universities have one. Counselors are available to provide support, advice, and coaching, and can help students come up with new options and connect them with other resources.
    • 24-hour help line: many colleges and communities have a 24-hour phone service dedicated to helping those considering suicide or dealing with some other crisis. Especially for students without friends or family to turn to (or who don’t want to reveal their thoughts to people they know) the volunteers who run these services can provide invaluable and caring support at a time of great need.
    • Resident Assistants and other peer mentors: colleges are full of students with a passion for helping others. Seeking the help of an older and more adjusted peer can feel less intimidating than other options, and can be particularly helpful if that peer is trained in supporting the students in his or her community.
    • Professors: they care about you and want you to succeed, and they are very familiar with the stresses and challenges of college life. And they know where to direct you on campus should you wish to seek professional advice.
    • This article at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s website contains a list of other valuable resources and support options students at any school can take advantage of.

    Every student, parent, and professor should become familiar with the resources offered by their school and community, so they know where to go when those supports are needed most. If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or might be at risk, please act now. Don’t wait until it’s too late. With increased awareness, we can work towards making college a safe and exciting experience for all students, not for just some.