When suicide affects our 18- to 24-year olds

A 20-year-old college student talked to me about recent suicides on college campuses: “When a suicide happens to someone your own age, it is so sad that it doesn’t feel real. Even if you don’t know the person, you may have mutual friends on Facebook. The person may look happy on Facebook and then you are shocked to see ‘R.I.P.’  messages."

Young people everywhere are upset about suicides among their peers. As parents, we are worried when suicide touches the lives of our children. Here are some observations about suicide among young people, and some suggestions as to how parents can help reduce the risk factors and offer emotional support.

Suicide rates for 18- to 24-year-olds, both students and non-students, come from the National Violent Death Reporting System.  The 2001 data was collected from four states (CT, ME, UT, WI) and two counties (Allegheny PA, San Francisco CA) and is derived from 181 suicide victims.  Most of the suicide victims were male (88%), white (89%) and non-students (80%).  According to the data, college students actually had a lower risk of suicide than people their age who were not in school. Use of firearms (51%) or suffocation or hanging (37%) were the most common methods. Students were less likely to use firearms than non-students.

Suicide is a leading cause of death and accounts for more than 1,000 deaths per year, according to data focused on college students in the United States,

For some, college is definitely not “the best time of their lives.”  Depending on the study, up to 70% of college students have had thoughts of suicide and up to 5% of college students have made suicide attempts.

What are the risk factors for suicide among college students? The # 1 risk factor is a previous suicide attempt: one third of individuals who attempt suicide will try again within a year. Additional risk factors include:

  • Having a mental health problem like depression, anxiety or an eating disorder...especially if the individual is not receiving treatment.
  • Feeling pressure – both social and academic…many are used to achieving A’s which is not always possible in the college setting. 
  • Feeling isolated and alienated…for some, this is their first time living away from home.
  • Using drugs or alcohol.

Needless to say, suicide is overwhelmingly devastating for families and close friends of the individual…but it is also devastating for classmates. A college student who has lost a friend to suicide may feel powerful emotions including shock, disbelief, anger at the person who committed suicide, and depression with suicidal thoughts themselves.

My advice: 

  • If you or your child is experiencing despair or difficulty healing, seek mental health help right away.
  • If your teenager is headed for college, talk about the campus counseling center.  The majority of students who die by suicide never received services at their campus counseling centers.
  • If your teenager is not headed for college, the time after high school may be equally stressful.  Talk with your teen about how he or she is feeling and identify mental health resources if needed.
  • Know that the National suicide hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is there if you need them.
  • For parents who have younger children, start building protective factors while they are still at home:
  • Help them develop a social network, for example, through extracurricular activities.
  • Work on problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills.
  • Help them develop a positive view of the future.
  • Help them to feel comfortable talking about feelings and asking for help.

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