Twenty percent of students have thought about suicide, according to a study recently published in Depression and Anxiety.
Researchers from Harvard University‘s Medical School analyzed results from the spring 2015 National College Health Assessment. The survey asked more than 67,000 college students across 108 institutions about mental health diagnoses, stressful experiences, and suicidal thoughts.
The study found the following:
High rates of stressful events are associated with mental health issues. Three out of four respondents experienced at least one stressful event in the last year, while more than 20% experienced six or more stressful events. The researchers found that exposure to stress was strongly associated with mental health diagnoses, self-harm, and suicidality.
LGBTQ students have higher rates of suicidal thoughts and self-injury. Two-thirds of transgender students say they have self-harmed and more than one-third say they have attempted suicide. Similarly, over half of bisexual students say they have self-harmed and over a quarter say they have attempted suicide.
Mental health issues may be underreported for racial minorities. Compared with white students, fewer Asian students report mental health problems. Black students were also less likely to report mental health problems or suicidal thoughts.
“What’s striking about our findings is that there is a disproportionate number of students who are reporting a large number of exposures to stress they believe is traumatic or difficult to overcome,” says Cindy Liu, the study’s lead researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard.
These stressful events include academic pressure, career issues, death of family member or friend, and finances. “Some stressful events cannot be prevented and, in some cases, are completely normal. But for others, a plan should be in place for family, friends and colleges to provide support. Our study highlights an urgent need to help students reduce their experience of overwhelming levels of stress during college,” says Liu.
Colleges understand this need to tackle student stress. Institutions are doing more than ever to help students cope with depression and anxiety, through peer counseling and traditional mental health services, says Liu. And for high-need students, institutions are also promoting off-campus care, according to EAB research.
To meet rising student demand, colleges have invested in their counseling centers, according to one 2017 survey. Respondents reported that they have:
- Diversified their counseling center staff to match their student body, in an effort to correct a long-standing lack of diversity;
- Begun to offer counseling services in multiple languages;
- Hired more counselors overall to accommodate increasing demand for services; and
- Increased the budget for salaries.
Many campuses use National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which runs through the month of September, to open a dialogue and fight the stigma around suicide. “National Suicide Awareness Month and week is really just about us erasing that stigma and making sure that we are recognizing that someone is struggling,” says Santana Simple, the director of suicide prevention at Texas A&M University. “Checking in on them, getting them connected to resources.”
If students, faculty, or administrators have a feeling that someone is not quite being themselves, they should first “check in on that person, even if it’s just asking what’s going on,” advises Simple.
To support vulnerable populations year-round, some colleges have established safe spaces for students around campus. The University of Pennsylvania has SafeZones to ensure that any student who is interested in sexual orientation or gender issues feels welcome. In each SafeZone, faculty and staff who have completed intensive training are ready to listen, support, and refer students to appropriate resources.
Institutions are also working to teach students and their families about care options on and off campus, and are using data to pair community resources with students’ needs. For instance, Baylor University shares a scope of care letter with students and their families prior to orientation outlining counseling services available on campus. The letter also encourages students to establish a care plan before classes begin. And College of Charleston hosts annual meet-and-greets to educate campus counselors on available community services. Counselors can then confidently refer students whose needs extend beyond the scope of campus care.
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