Mental Health Issues on Campus: Blog Articles

Reducing the Risk of Campus Suicide

MARCH 04, 2019

There’s a heady freedom in being a college student. It can be exhilarating at first—and terrifying. 

College administrators understand the inherent risks in educating and housing young people experiencing that freedom for the first time. Administrators must be vigilant in mitigating well-documented dangers (binge drinking, fraternity hazing) while also being cognizant of dangers even harder to identify. 

While exhilarating, life as a college student can be stressful. Academic pressure, changes in social life, and living in a new place can be overwhelming, at times leading to stress, depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health issues.

A national study indicates that 8 percent of full-time college students have had suicidal thoughts or seriously considered suicide. In " Student Mental Health on Campus: Claims Involving Suicidal Students," part of a larger study on campus mental health, United Educators (UE) reviewed 223 claims related to student mental health and found that suicide-related claims were among the most frequent and costliest. 

The key lessons administrators can learn from the report:

  1. Publicize support resources. Reducing the stigma of seeking assistance may help vulnerable students feel less isolated. Consider targeting efforts toward students in high-pressure majors, such as engineering and computer science, as well as in high-risk groups, such as international students.  
  2. Train “gatekeepers” on the warning signs. By training students and faculty to spot distress signs, institutions can better identify and respond to at-risk students. One example: Friends noticed a young man in their group appeared deeply depressed one night while they were drinking. They were concerned enough to remove sharp objects from his dorm room, but they took no further steps. That night, he hanged himself in his room. Gatekeeper training may have prompted the students to involve college staff.

    Many off-the-shelf options are available for gatekeeper training—both in person and online. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s matrix—which compares programs, including those focused on educational institutions—is a good starting point.
  3. Form a Behavior Assessment and Intervention Team (BAIT) and evaluate its effectiveness regularly. A team that meets frequently can identify and intervene before a crisis. Targeted intervention may steer a distressed student toward help. BAITs should include a representative from residential life, athletics, health/counseling, disability services, academic advising, public safety, and risk management/legal.

Know the signs

Administrators must educate staff on how to identify at-risk students. These behaviors may indicate someone is contemplating suicide:

  • Talking about wanting to die or feeling hopeless
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, and activities
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more signs a student displays, the higher the risk of a suicide attempt. 

Knowing how to intervene is essential. For instance, don’t leave the person alone, and encourage him or her to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Seek help from a mental health professional, contact a local emergency helpline, or call 911.

For more information, UE members can download “Student Mental Health on Campus: Claims Involving Suicidal Students” and the full report, “Student Mental Health on Campus: A Review of Claims.” Nonmembers can request access to the reports by emailing info@ue.org.

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