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Stressed Latina girl, studying in front of a laptop.

Colleges and universities can better support students experiencing suicidal ideation by understanding the risk factors and employing intervention strategies that work.

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Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 12 to 24, with incidents increasing 52 percent between 2000 and 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy has put particular emphasis on combating loneliness and suicide among young people, touring colleges around the nation to indicate the need to focus on these issues.

In a new report, published Dec. 6, nonprofit group The Jed Foundation (JED) identifies nine measures institutions and higher education practitioners can take to reduce the number of youth dying by suicide.


In writing this report, The Jed Foundation compiled statistics from national groups’ studies of youth mental health including the CDC, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Trevor Project, the Healthy Minds Network, and the American College Health Association.

JED met with experts in youth mental health, youth suicide and suicide prevention, lethal means reduction, and representatives of different demographic groups, including LGBTQ+ youth, Black youth, young women and American Indian/Alaska Native youth.

What’s the need: JED identified seven factors that affect the suicide rate among today’s youth.

  1. Increased isolation and loneliness. Young adults, on average, spend less time with friends and family than in the past, tied in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation. Social connection is tied to physical well-being, and loneliness can increase risk of mortality.
  2. Consequences from the pandemic. Beyond isolating students, the pandemic also increased rates of childhood depression and anxiety symptoms. People of color were more likely to be affected as well, and teen girls had more mental health–related emergency room visits in 2021 than in 2019.
  3. Gun ownership and access to firearms. Gun sales have increased dramatically since 2020, increasing risk of suicide. Just under 90 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal, and over half of youth suicides in 2020 involved a firearm. Almost 80 percent of firearms used in suicides by minors are owned by parents or other family members.
  1. Worry about the future. More than two in five (45 percent) young adults believe the world is unraveling, and over half of youth ages 16 to 25 are either very or extremely worried about the climate. Nearly three in five young adults felt they lacked meaning or purpose in the previous month.
  2. Constant digital connection. Nearly half of all teens ages 13 to 17 use the internet almost constantly, spending around 4.8 hours on social media per day. Teens, ages 11 to 17, check their phone on average over 100 times per day and receive a median of 237 push notifications a day. While there are benefits to technology, students may also be exposed to harmful content, become victims of cyberbullying, be chronically online or partake in social comparison.
  3. Financial insecurity. Young people’s mental health is exceedingly impacted by financial need. Around three in five college students experience basic needs insecurity, and more than half of borrowers believe their mental issues are connected to their student loan debts.
  4. A lack of mental health treatment. A significant number of young people experiencing mental health concerns do not receive treatment or mental health care. Among young adults, over 40 percent of those aged 18 to 25 with mental illnesses do not have access to mental health care.

Demographic factors—including age, gender, sexuality, race and location—can also impact a young person’s risk factors associated with suicide or suicidal ideation, according to the report.

Strategies: JED identified a number of recommendations to reduce suicides among young people. Here are eight strategies that apply to colleges and universities:

  1. Adopt a comprehensive approach.

Wraparound supports should focus on seven domains to create a whole-community effort supporting wellness and suicide prevention. These include developing life skills, promoting social connection, identifying students at risk, increasing help-seeking behaviors, providing mental health and substance misuse services, establishing postvention plans, and promoting means safety.

JED’s comprehensive approach for colleges and universities models the U.S. Air Force’s program, using evidence-based practices.

  1. Create community and connection.

Social connection among college students can improve health, resilience, safety and engagement and provide meaning in their lives.

To promote community and connection, higher education leaders should design inclusive campus climates, create opportunities for young people to meet each other, encourage giving back and gratitude, and support intergenerational connections.

Student groups focused on mental health can be one way to improve community and belonging among learners, while also involving students in suicide-prevention efforts.

  1. Meet basic needs and address trauma.

Financial hardship can increase depression and suicide rates, and childhood poverty is an independent risk factor for adult depression, making them important factors to address in supporting students. Traumatic events can also impact young people’s mental health, increasing rates of psychological distress, self-harm and death by suicide.

Practitioners can ensure access to housing and food and expand the availability of trauma-informed care in colleges and universities to aid learners.

  1. Increase coping and emotional support skills.

Interpersonal and self-awareness skills can help students manage emotional stressors, control their impulses and develop ways to face challenges later in life.

Life skills education can help youth increase resiliency and coping skills. Adults and peers should also receive training to help identify those who may be struggling with their mental health and connect them to resources. Spaces for youth-led dialogue can also help students engage in conversations about mental health.

  1. Meaningfully increase access to care.

Access to high-quality mental and physical health care can be uneven in the U.S. health-care system. Finding a health-care provider who shares the same cultural background or experience can also be a challenge for young people.

Higher education institutions should ensure provider networks adequately serve their populations, having enough mental health providers to serve the campus and a staff that represents the diversity of the campus population. Partnerships in which graduate students provide services to younger students can help meet this need.

  1. Make widespread use of suicide-prevention treatments and interventions.

Treatments and interventions that can decrease suicidal thoughts and self-harm attempts include dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, safety planning interventions and collaborative assessment and management of suicidality.

However, many treatments are underutilized because of funding, lack of training for providers and a disconnect between culturally competent approaches and treatment components. Mental health professionals working in higher education spaces or training the next generation of providers can consider these approaches when addressing youth suicide.

  1. Reduce access to lethal means.

Research shows limiting access to lethal methods of self-harm is “one of the most powerful tools we have in reducing suicide,” according to the report. Research published in June by the American Council on Education also identified means reduction as an effective way of reducing mental health risk on college campuses.

Guns pose the greatest risk to young people experiencing suicidal ideation, so advancing changes in firearm safety and ensuring young people do not have access to firearms in a time of crisis can help keep college students safe.

  1. Leverage technology to support mental health.

Technology can help overcome barriers to mental health access for learners and other young people. Telemedicine can increase access to providers, but learners also need a reliable internet connection and private space to engage in counseling online, which institutions should consider when creating partnerships.

Technology can also help practitioners identify where students already engage and meet them there, including on social media platforms, smartphone apps or in virtual reality.

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This article has been updated to correct the naming convention of The Jed Foundation to capitalize The.

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