Preventing Suicide Among College Students
This column is a plea to all current and future college students and their families to deal openly and constructively with emotional, social and academic turmoil that can sometimes have heartbreaking — and usually preventable — consequences.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death, after traffic accidents, among college students. For most, it’s their first time living away from home, away from the support and comfort usually provided by good friends and family members. The adjustment can be overwhelming for some students, especially those who don’t make friends easily or who have difficulty meeting the demands of challenging college courses.
Sadly, parents are often unaware of the struggles facing their college-age children, and a federal privacy law often prevents colleges from notifying parents of serious student difficulties even when faculty members and administrators know about them.
Consider the recent suicide of a Hamilton College student whose parents were unaware of his severe distress even though several professors and the dean knew he was going through “a complete crash and burn,” as one put it.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or Ferpa, prevents colleges from alerting parents when students are in serious academic trouble unless a parent claims the child as a dependent on tax forms.
Although the law permits “appropriate parties” to be contacted in a health or safety emergency, it’s up to colleges to recognize that skipping classes, not turning in assignments and flunking exams is often a symptom of deep emotional distress that could well be a medical emergency not subject to the privacy act.
In the late 1950s, long before that privacy law, I helped avert a near-tragedy.
I was 16 when a young man who considered me his only friend returned from his first year at college intent on suicide. He had flunked out, he told me, but he dared not tell his parents, and before they found out he was going to kill himself.
Knowing how vindictive his parents could be, I spent the rest of the day and night helping him choose a less drastic option. He chose to enlist in the army after which he returned to college, graduated with honors and went on to law school. Years later he told me I had saved his life.
I am hoping this column might help save many others, not just from suicide but also from needlessly suffering in silence when help might be only a phone call away.
“Seeking help is a sign of strength,” said Timothy Marchell, director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell University. “It’s normal for many students to struggle, and they should know there are people on campus who can help.”
Almost every college and university has a campus counseling center to which students are supposed to be referred if a faculty member believes they are in a downward spiral academically or emotionally. Sometimes, for ongoing services, students will be referred to outside therapists.
And the incidence and potential for crises mounts annually. According to the National College Health Assessment, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of students suffering from depression — to 40.2 percent last year nationwide from 32.6 percent in 2013. Likewise, during that same period, there has been an increase in those thinking about suicide, to 11.5 percent from 8.1 percent, and those attempting suicide, to 1.7 percent from 1.3 percent, during the same period. About one student in 12 has a suicide plan.
For the seventh year in a row, college counseling centers report an increase in the number of students seeking treatment who represent “threat-to-self,” according to this year’s report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.
Many institutions of higher learning are struggling to keep up with the demand. For example, Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services, which provided care for the 13 percent of Cornell University students experiencing debilitating depression, stress and anxiety in 2005-6, counseled 21 percent of the student population in 2016-17. They have also added 10 full-time employees, for a current total of 32 counselors to provide the needed services for 14,500 undergraduates and 7,000 graduate students, a better-than-average ratio.
The university has also created a “Caring Community” with a website that directs students to help, including emergency services, for all kinds of health-related issues.
One link under “Notice and Respond” directs anyone concerned about another student to potentially lifesaving information. It lists 13 signs of distress, from “falling behind and missing classes” to “impulsivity and unnecessary risk-taking” to “verbal or written threats of suicide, or expressions of hopelessness or a wish to die.” It also provides guidance on how to respond in a caring manner, noting that the only real risk is doing nothing.
It recommends being nonjudgmental and using “I” (not “you”) statements like “I’m worried about you because I notice you’re drinking more, and not making it to your morning classes.” In addition to suggesting helpful campus resources, a friend might suggest that troubled students reach out to their parents or a trusted relative for support.
The university also offers a bystander intervention program to encourage action when a fellow student seems to be in trouble.
There are at least two good ways around limitations colleges face about notifying parents. One is for students to grant college administrators, in advance of any difficulty, permission to contact parents without delay if they are in academic or emotional trouble. The other is for a concerned friend to alert the parents or a trusted family member; no permission is required if the student has provided contact information.
Parents too can actively help their children in college navigate the often considerable stresses. A good starting point: Don’t saddle students with unrealistic academic expectations. Even when parents don’t say so out loud, children know when failure to get an A results in parental disapproval. One of my sons, who opted not to have his college grades sent to us, said: “All anyone needs to know is that I graduated. Potential employers don’t ask to see a college transcript.”
Make sure your college-age child knows you are readily available to help when needed. Stay in touch through regular phone calls, text messages, Skype or what-have-you. Ask open-ended questions and listen carefully to the tone as well as the words of the responses. Avoid judgments, criticisms and threats, any of which can push the student into an inescapable corner. You might even share struggles you had as a student.