College students are far less likely to kill themselves than are nonstudent peers, according to a 10-year research study examining suicide rates at 12 Midwestern campuses.
The Big Ten Student Suicide Study (Silverman et al., 1997) found an overall student suicide rate of 7.5 per 100,000, compared to the national average of 15 per 100,000 in a sample matched for age, race and gender. Forty-six percent of student suicides occurred in the 20-year-old to 24-year-old age group. Graduate students were found to be at greatest risk, comprising 32% of campus suicides.
"The finding that the suicide rate on campus is lower than in the general population didn't surprise me," said Morton Silverman, M.D., study co-author and director of the Student Counseling and Resource Service at University of Chicago. "The whole infrastructure of a campus is geared toward providing support, feedback, caring and assistance toward self-actualization, growth and maturation. As a result, students who are struggling get attention faster, get treated faster and, as a result, function better."
Campus prohibitions against firearm possession also are credited for the lower observed rate, Silverman told Psychiatric Times. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, undated), 57% of suicides in 1998 were carried out with a gun. Students who commit suicide are more likely to hang themselves, jump from unprotected buildings or ingest lethal chemicals commonly found in campus labs, said Silverman, adding that these findings offer campus administrators important and practical help with prevention efforts.
The Big Ten study, which looked at nearly 350,000 students per year over a 10-year period, analyzed 261 suicides. "Even if we missed a few [suicides] every year, that number is still, when you do the calculations, way below the national figures," Silverman said.
When asked about the higher rate of suicide among graduate students, he responded, "We're not sure if it's a question of later onset of the major psychiatric disorders or whether it takes a number of years of having these illnesses untreated that [eventually] puts you in the danger zone." Silverman added that pressure to make decisions about a career or the future might also be a factor.
Despite encouraging statistics suggesting that college may be protective against suicide, campus administrators and clinicians who treat students still are losing sleep over how best to spot and treat at-risk students.
Suicide rates have been rising steadily among the young and nearly tripled between 1952 and 1995 (CDC, undated). Suicide now ranks as the second leading cause of death for American college students (Jamison, 1999; Silverman, 1993). In 1998, suicide killed more teen-agers and young adults than AIDS, cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, birth defects, stroke, influenza and chronic lung disease combined (CDC, undated).
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