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Redefining Suicide Risk -- and Prevention Strategy

August 18, 2008

Six percent of undergraduates and 4 percent of graduate students seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months, according to a national survey released Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. More than half of those students never sought professional help or told anyone about their suicidal feelings.

The paper on the study called for colleges to rethink their suicide prevention strategies. While colleges do a good job of offering counseling to those who present themselves "in crisis," they need to focus more on the overall campus environment if they are going to have an impact on reducing the numbers of students who seriously consider suicide. The study was conducted by a research team at the University of Texas at Austin, and involved surveys of 26,000 students at 70 colleges and universities who were reached through the National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education.

Of all of the students, more than half reported at least one episode of suicidal thinking at some point in their lives. Five percent reported making a suicide attempt at least once in their lifetime.

Of those reporting suicidal thoughts, most described the period as "intense and brief," with more than half of the episodes lasting one day or less. But the researchers stressed that the brevity of these episodes did not suggest that they were not serious threats. More than half of these students engage in specific planning during the periods -- plotting scenarios, figuring out how they might kill themselves, writing notes, etc.

Fourteen percent of the undergraduates who seriously considered suicide in the last year and 8 percent of graduate students made a suicide attempt. Of those who attempted suicide, 19 percent of undergraduates and 28 percent of graduate students required medical attention.

Students seriously considering suicide gave the following reasons (in order): wanting relief from emotional or physical pain, problems with romantic relationships, the desire to end their life and problems with college or academics.

David J. Drum, the lead author of the paper, is a professor of education psychology and former director of the counseling center at Texas. In an interview Sunday, he said that the research shows the need for "a new paradigm" in campus suicide prevention.

"When you have 6 percent of your undergraduates who can report that they seriously consider suicide, that tells you that it's a far more common phenomenon than you see when you just deal with students in crisis," he said.

Especially since so many of these students never seek help, he said, colleges need to look at the circumstances that create "suicide ideation" and confront those -- while continuing to serve those who seek counseling.

Given clear patterns between relationship violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse with suicide, efforts to reduce their prevalence can reduce the number of people who think about suicide. Further, he said that more depression awareness programs, as well as efforts to promote "campus inclusion" so students are less likely to feel "isolated and alone," may have an impact.

While counseling centers need more resources to help those who seek assistance, Drum said that colleges must focus on the factors that "predispose people to suicide" and address them. Ultimately, he said, "we have to do things that strengthen the health of the entire student body."

 

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