AFSP-Funded Study Links Depression, Lack of Support, to College Student Suicide
Depression and the feeling of a lack of support appear to be correlated with suicidal thoughts and behavior in some college students, according to research from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, the University of Maryland and other institutions.
The study, funded by AFSP and the National Institutes of Health, and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, followed more than a thousand students throughout their college years, identifying factors linked to suicidal thinking and highlighting the importance of spotting high-risk students early on and referring them for treatment.
Of the 1,085 students, 151 (12 percent) said they had pondered committing suicide at least once, 37 of whom (24.5 percent) said they did so repeatedly. Ten of the 151 said they made specific plans or carried out full-fledged attempts during college. Two of the 10 said they attempted suicide without ever planning to do so. Of the 151, 17 students reported attempting suicide before college, and 22 reported planning a suicide before college but not attempting it.
Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among college-age students in the United States, with some 1,100 deaths each year.
The study also showed that students who reported thinking repeatedly about suicide were no more likely to attempt it than those who did so only once. This surprising finding suggests that mental health professionals cannot assume that those who think about suicide more often are at a higher risk, nor are those who have a single suicidal thought necessarily safer than those who ponder suicide repeatedly.
"The results emphasize the need for an anonymous, web-based outreach to all college students, like our Interactive Screening Program," AFSP Medical Director Dr. Paula Clayton said. "Students need be properly screened for the risk factors that can lead to suicide, and then engaged in coming in for an assessment."
For additional information on this study, please contact Dr. Amelia Arria at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Sinclair was a sophomore engineering major from Chevy Chase, Maryland. Matthew Zika and Gregory Willoughby were juniors, studying engineering and biochemistry, respectively.
Though the boys’ names might have been linked for a variety of reasons (Sinclair and Zika studied in the same department at Cornell University, while Zika and Willoughby originally hailed from Indiana), their stories became intertwined last week when Willoughby, a student at Indiana University, became one of several victims of college-campus suicides committed in the past month.
Sinclair and Zika jumped into a gorge on their Ithaca, NY campus within a day of each other, bringing the total number of suicides at Cornell this academic year to six within the same number of months. The school has taken pains to distance itself from being deemed a “suicide school,” a reputation it has acquired due to similar series of suicides that have occurred at the institution in previous years.
Willoughby’s death in his dorm room at IU-Bloomington has also raised questions about flaws and failings on the part of the university he attended. A full-ride scholarship student, Willoughby died from inhalation of toxic chemicals in his sealed room; his body was found as much as ten days after death. A university spokesman quoted in an April 15 article in The Indianapolis Star noted that the school was looking into why Willoughby’s absence went unnoticed for such a long period of time.
The three deaths have reintroduced a national debate over the issue of mental health and suicide prevention on college campuses. Though the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes that youth (ages 15-24) suicide rates have appeared to be declining since the mid-1990s, suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death among college students. A loss of one or more students often leads to increased efforts on college campuses to work towards mental health destigmatization, expand means of treatment, and create greater resources for suicide prevention.
Such is the case at GW, according to Dr. John Dages, director of University Counseling Center (UCC) and a professor of clinical psychology. Dages, who has worked at the university for nearly five years, said he is only aware of one on-campus suicide in recent GW history.
Freshman Hasan Hussain jumped from his fourth-floor room in April 2004, according to an archived story in The Hatchet. Other stories describe suicides of GW students that were committed off-campus in February and September of that same year. Jennifer Dierdorff’s body was found in a motel room in Arlington, V.A; fellow sophomore Susan Shin jumped from her eighth-story room in an off-campus apartment building a few months later. Shin’s death occurred in the same month as student suicides at both Princeton and NYU.
Those instances deeply affected the GW community, Dages explained, leading to an increased focus on “crisis-intervention” mechanisms within the counseling center and the implementation of a variety of new support services, ranging from a Peer Counselor program to downloadable self-help podcasts available on the UCC website.
Following the 2004 deaths, the UCC also applied for a SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) Suicide Prevention Grant, which gave the counseling center “the resources, the money and the initiative to go out and do an incredible amount of outreach,” Dages said. The grant, which continued through the 2008-2009 school year, facilitated the creation of a 24/7 “Call-a-Counselor” program, in which students can reach an on-call, trained professional at any time.
The University also boasts a “telephone triage assessment system,” explained Dages, through which students are provided with an immediate on-phone consultation or an appointment within 24 hours. The system is crucial to eliminating waiting times for students to get help – something that is especially important for those who are may be having suicidal thoughts. GW is one of several universities that has put such a system in place.
“[We’re] thinking outside the box, always wanting to be ahead of the game,” Dages said.
Despite the array of available resources, the possibility remains that students may slip through the cracks if they choose not to ask for help.
That’s something Rachel Krausman ’13, a co-founder of GW’s chapter of the national student organization Active Minds, is particularly worried about.
“The most sort of intangible issue on campuses is that students do not seek help regardless of how many opportunities there are,” Krausman said via email. “I think an important thing to work on at GW is to better prepare and train House Proctors to see the signs…and address them immediately so that students don’t necessarily have to come for help on their own, as many will not.”
Dages said the UCC has developed an online program to teach faculty, staff, and students about suicide awareness and education, a key component to the UCC’s mission to assist “students in the most immediate, thoughtful, responsible, professional way.”
The UCC has also developed a means of directly reaching out to students on National Depression Screening Day, held every October, when students passing through the Marvin Center have the opportunity to take a brief diagnostic survey that will identify whether or not they exhibit symptoms of depression. During the event last year, Dages said peer educators and UCC staff interacted with approximately 200 students and, though not all of them chose to be screened, it provided an “opportunity for students to learn about depression” as part of an “educational experience that’s not too intimidating.”
Approachability is key to providing students with a safe and comfortable environment in which to learn about mental health issues and discuss their own feelings, he said. Acknowledging that “sometimes students relate more to [other] students, versus psychologists, at the initial point of contact,” Dages added that collaboration with student organizations and initiatives is crucial to reaching as many people on campus as possible.
Krausman, an intern with Active Minds, worked with fellow student Adam Katz ’13 to revive the GW chapter of the non-profit that aims to spread awareness and offer resources. Founded by then-college student Alison Malmon in 2001 after her brother, Brian, committed suicide, Active Minds is an umbrella organization that includes 256 individual groups across the country, and, though the GW group is just getting started, Krausman is optimistic about the club’s future on campus.
“We just want to gather support and participants in the chapter who truly care about the issue so that we can establish ourselves,” she said. “I would love to see this organization make partnerships in the community, since D.C. is such a unique location, to really expand the level of influence and impact we can have on college suicide and depression.”