College Suicide: Facts and Trends in the United States

An alarming number of college students take their own lives and attempt to end their lives each and every year. Parents, teachers, and truly everyone in the community need to have an essential understanding of facts and trends relating to college suicide in the United States, including in the state of California, at this point in time.

Statistical Data on the Prevalence of College Student Suicide

The most basic statistic about college student suicide in the United States today is also the most alarming. The second leading cause of death among college students in the country is suicide, according to the American College Health Association. The suicide rate among people between the ages of 15 to 24 (a demographic cohort that includes college students) has tripled since the 1950s.

One out of every five college students reports having thoughts of suicide. The reality is that this percentage is likely low. A considerable number of people, including (if not particularly) college students are unwilling to disclose that they’ve entertained suicidal thoughts or ideations. There remains a considerable level of shame associated with suicide, suicidal thoughts, and even being the surviving loved one of a person who takes his or her own life. 

About 10 percent of college students report having made a suicide attempt. Once again, this number likely is low for the reasons noted a moment ago.

Although suicide rates across California tend to be at least somewhat lower than what is found elsewhere in the United States, the suicide rate among California college students generally is comparable to what is seen in other parts of the country. This underscores the fact that college suicide is a nationally pervasive issue. 

Risk Factors for College Suicide

About a dozen overarching risk factors are associated with suicide among college students in California and across the United States. These risk factors are:

  • Major depression
  • Substance abuse and addiction issues
  • Severe personality disorders
  • Physical illness
  • Traumatic life event
  • Prior suicide attempt or attempts
  • Sense of isolation
  • Lack of meaningful support
  • Impulsivity issues
  • Poor coping skills
  • Access to a suicide method (medication, gun, knife, etc.)

Depression is one of the most widely evident factors associated with an individual who attempts or actually commits suicide. In the United States today, an estimated 25 percent of all college students are diagnosed with some type of mental health issue. Depression is the most commonplace of these diagnoses. 

Warning Signs of College Suicide

Understanding the warning signs associated with suicide among college students (and others) is imperative. Warning signs do differ from one college student to the next. Having said that, there are some commonplace warning signs of college suicide that include:

  • Severe mood swings
  • Disregard for personal appearance and hygiene
  • Talking about death
  • Talking about suicide
  • Joking about suicide
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Statements of hopelessness
  • Statements of helplessness
  • Statements of worthlessness
  • Withdrawal from activities once enjoyed
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Poor academic performance
  • Unusual visits with or phone calls to people 
  • Giving away possessions
  • Getting affairs in order
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • More than one “accident” resulting in injury
  • Obsession with guns or knives

College and University Response to Student Suicide

College and universities in California and across the United States have become more proactive when it comes to addressing the very real problem with student suicide. Common steps that are being taken by institutions of higher education to combat what appropriately can be labeled a suicide on college and university campuses include:

  • Expanded mental health counseling services on campus
  • Depression awareness programs
  • Suicide awareness and prevention programs
  • Suicide awareness and prevention training programs for staff
  • Suicide awareness and prevention training programs for dorm RAs
  • Stress-reduction programs and activities 
  • Peer support endeavors
  • Student support groups

Parental and Family Support

Parents and other family members can and should provide support to students in colleges and universities as part of a comprehensive suicide prevention program. Examples of the ways in which parents and family can generally support students when away from home include:

  • Stay involved with student’s life
  • Keep in regular contact with student
  • Ask open-ended questions in conversations 
  • Promote self-care by student
  • Share your own struggles and challenges with student
  • Monitor social media without violating privacy

How to Respond to a Student Expressing Suicidal Thoughts or Ideations

There are a number of crucial points to bear in mind if a college student comes to you expressing suicidal thoughts or ideations. These include:

  • Do not leave the student alone
  • Do not minimize student’s feelings
  • Do not trivialize student’s problems
  • Do not treat the student as if he or she is merely attention-seeking
  • Do clearly reassure a student that he or she is not a burden
  • Do clearly reassure a student that he or she is not weak
  • Do praise the student for coming forward and sharing his or her thoughts