September is suicide awareness month. One alarming aspect of suicide is its frequency among young people, particularly college students. Defined as self-injurious behavior aimed at causing one’s death, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. Annually about 1,000 college students take their own lives. Thousands of their family members are affected by these deaths. Fellow students and faculty are traumatized, and campus life is disrupted. Thousands more commit non-fatal acts of self-harm to deal with extreme emotional pain.
September is also a month when all of America’s colleges and universities are back in session with in-person classes, virtual classes, or some combination of the two. Many continue to offer non-traditional, exclusively on-line programs of study for students who can earn degrees entirely via on-line instruction. But for many traditional college students in their late teens and early twenties returning to college is an emotional adjustment and challenge to their wellbeing. Many of these young people are often away from home, family, and friends for the first time – losing connection to the emotional support system they have known all their lives. They’re living with strangers, in a new setting, and working under intense pressure to achieve. Many have had limited experience with the new autonomy that comes with college life. Autonomy that also brings easier access to alcohol and illegal drugs, and new peer pressure. Their ability to adjust to change is challenged. Their interpersonal skills are tested as they develop a new social support system. They must learn to manage stress in this new environment while often coping with loneliness. They do all this with disrupted sleeping, eating, and exercise patterns. Now add in COVID-19. One can hardly imagine a more stressful situation for young people with limited life experience. This adjustment is made much more difficult for about one-fifth of students – those with some underlying mental health or substance abuse condition.
Obviously, college students are a vulnerable population. Vulnerable for suicide as proven by their high rate of death from that cause. But also vulnerable for mental health and substance abuse conditions in general. Especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic with its unusual and additional stresses. College administrators realize their responsibility for student’s mental health and safety but are faced with the dual challenge of reduced budgets and implementing COVID-19 precautions. What can they do to improve student access to mental health and preventative services and to ensure students’ wellbeing? Here are some suggestions:
- Survey students and parents. Ask them about their mental health issues, needs, and expectations for campus support.
- Provide accessible campus wellness activities. Activities that build resilience in students and normalize mental health on par with physical health.
- Provide easy access to behavioral health screening services. Ones that also provide easy access to counselors.
- Review on-campus student counseling center’s services, hours of operation, and accessibility. Is there a “waiting list” for services? Is 24/7 access to a counselor available for students with urgent needs? Are services being delivered in culturally competent way?
- Train students, faculty, administrators, staff, and campus police in mental health first aid.
- Offer a comprehensive suicide awareness and prevention program for students.
- Engage rising first-year student early on with supportive services. Services that help him/her bridge the social and emotional transition from high school to college.
- Include mental health of students in on-line educational programs. (There are about 500 nationally.) Do these students have equal access to your institution’s mental health services? Are their unique needs being addressed?
- If you have fiduciary responsibilities for student and faculty health and wellbeing, examine your own attitudes and beliefs about sensitive issues like mental health, suicide, and emotional wellbeing. Make sure you recognize your own biases (it’s okay, we all have biases) and recognize how they influence your actions.
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020
Peterson C, Sussell A, Li J, Schumacher PK, Yeoman K, Stone DM. Suicide Rates by Industry and Occupation — National Violent Death Reporting System, 32 States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020; 69:57–62. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6903a1external icon.
Suicide is the Second Leading Cause of Death Among College Students
National Center For Education Statistics
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