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Mental health concerns have grown steadily among college-going individuals in recent years, and this was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rick Gatteau, vice president of student affairs at Stony Brook University in New York, said in a Sept. 15 webinar hosted by the virtual health provider TimelyCare that focused on student belonging efforts as key to suicide prevention. Anxiety and depression remain the most prevalent concerns among young people, but suicidal ideation continues to impact students, as well.
Suicide was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. among 15- to 24-year-olds in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. In 2021, 15- to 24-year-olds had a suicide rate of 15.15 per 100,000, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
There was a slight decline in reported suicidal thoughts among college students in the 2022–23 academic year. Suicidal ideation declined one percentage point year over year to 14 percent, according to data from the Healthy Minds Network.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and Inside Higher Ed compiled four ways higher education leaders can prioritize suicide prevention on their campuses.
- Unify services: Health and wellness education and prevention are now “part of the fabric of higher education,” Gatteau said. Colleges have made mental health conversations more comprehensive, involving all departments, from admissions to advising and the health center, to assist in not overloading the counseling center, where resources are often limited.
For example, Stony Brook established a student support team that works as a concierge service to direct learners to the correct department, depending on their needs and concerns.
- Restrict means: For students who do experience suicidal ideation, removing means to harm themselves can be a critical step in saving lives. Research from the American Council on Education published in June found means restriction is an effective way of reducing mental health risk.
At Cornell University, administrators have prioritized means reduction on campus, said Janis Whitlock, senior adviser at the Jed Foundation and emerita research scientist at the university, in the webinar.
- Promote belonging: Connectedness can be a significant factor in promoting healthy student mental health, whether that’s close relationships with their peers or other campus community members. Students who feel that they belong are more likely to ask for the services they need and engage with available resources, Whitlock said.
Faculty and staff can participate in belonging practices through intentional relationship building, whether that’s hosting students for dinner at home, creating office hours outside of academic settings or participating in mentorship programs.
Administrators can invest in spaces and structures that promote belonging, as well, Gatteau said. The first six weeks on campus are critical to student retention, so officials should create early opportunities for students to engage with like-minded peers. Living-learning communities in residence halls can unite students with similar backgrounds and interests. Welcome and pre-orientation programs can also help similarly interested learners meet one another prior to moving in.
Event organizers should create events designed for students to meet one another, because some students have anxiety around attending events by themselves, Gatteau said.
- Involve students: The stigma around mental health is changing, and students are now more likely to talk about mental health issues to support themselves and their friends, Amy Gatto, director of research and evaluation at Active Minds, said in the webinar. Students want to be part of the conversation, as seen by the growing number of student chapters of Active Minds on college campuses, which are working to make change.
Institutional leaders can involve students in dialogue around student mental health and lean on their experiences to better support the entire community.
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