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September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This month is dedicated to recognizing suicide prevention efforts and helps us stop and remember our friends and families who have been affected by suicide, while focusing efforts on directing treatment to those who need it most. But given that one person dies by suicide every 11 minutes, suicide prevention efforts can and should go beyond just the month of September. Now is the time to learn how to make a positive impact on the mental wellness of students and carry that strategy for health and wellness throughout the year.
Suicide rate statistic breakdowns
Using data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers these sobering statistics to promote the importance of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month:
- Although more women than men attempt suicide, men are 4 times more likely to die by suicide.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-14 and the third leading cause of death among people aged 15-24.
- Suicide is the twelfth leading cause of death overall in the U.S.
- 46% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition. 90% may have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition.
- Annual prevalence of serious thoughts of suicide by demographic:
- 4.9% of all adults.
- 11.3% of young adults aged 18-25.
- 18.8% of high school students.
- 45% of LGBTQ+ youth.
- The highest rates of suicide are among American Indian/Alaska Natives followed by non-Hispanic whites.
- Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth.
- Transgender adults are nearly nine times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.
This data provides a compelling case for the far-reaching impact of suicide on society.
How does suicidal ideation impact college students?
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 26% of students who started college in 2019 didn’t return to school the next year during the pandemic. While many dropped out due to a lack of motivation, life changes, or financial struggles, a recent survey by Ipsos and Sallie Mae found that 14% say mental health issues were the primary reason they left college. And, it was also a contributing factor to why nearly a third of students ultimately didn’t finish their degrees.
Half of the college students who dropped out primarily for mental health reasons (51%) reported that they did so during or after their freshman year. Students who dropped out due to their mental health were more likely to say they found it challenging to make connections and felt overwhelmed by the adjustment to college life than those who completed their degree.
The 2021 Healthy Minds Study report, an online survey of more than 103,000 college students, found that over the previous year:
- 41% reported clinical levels of depression.
- 34% showed symptoms of anxiety.
- 13% considered suicide.
- 1% attempted suicide.
It’s clear that, if left untreated or ignored by colleges and universities, mental health issues can become more severe, causing some students to leave school and/or experience suicidal ideation.
Take proactive measures to support students' mental health journeys
How can colleges increase suicide prevention advocacy and awareness?
Because colleges and universities collectively serve over 11.2 million undergraduate students, these institutions are expected to do so much more than educate students. And, they’re in a unique position to address and support the mental health of the students enrolled there. But often, schools are unsure of how to systematically approach mental health and suicide prevention.
The Jed Foundation (JED), a nonprofit organization that works to protect mental health and reduce suicide among young people aged 13-30, offers a comprehensive approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention for colleges and universities. This approach is adapted from an evidence-based model that was shown to reduce suicides among U.S. Air Force personnel.
In 2004, JED and a panel of advisors—including suicide prevention researchers, mental health clinicians in higher education, and student service professionals—adapted the model into a comprehensive approach to serve students in a higher education setting. This model addresses four thematic areas and seven strategic domains that reflect a public health approach. The thematic areas are:
- Promote resilience and protective factors to foster life skills and social connectedness.
- Encourage early intervention practices, identifying at-risk students, and supporting help-seeking behavior.
- Ensure access to clinical services (e.g., mental health support, substance misuse services, crisis management procedures).
- Implement environmental safety and means restrictions to reduce access to potentially lethal means.
Summarized by the National Academy of Medicine, the seven domains in JED’s comprehensive approach are:
1. Develop life skills
Promoting a student’s social-emotional development through life skills education can impact well-being and academic success. These life skills include exploring identities and values, developing supportive relationships and friendships, developing innovative solutions to solve problems, understanding and regulating emotions, developing and practicing resilience, and promoting a healthy lifestyle. Life skills education is an essential approach to aiding college students in adjusting to university life, dealing with everyday stressors in college, and progressing through college into a career. Ensuring that students develop emotional and interpersonal awareness is a valid preventative strategy aimed at enabling students to thrive. On college campuses, life skills development is infused in and out of the classroom and coordinated across various departments, such as residential life, student groups, health promotion, and fitness and recreation.
2. Promote social connectedness
Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for suicide. Consequently, students’ connectedness to family, friends, and the campus community may be protective against the risk of suicide and mental health problems. Because students often reach out to their peers when they need emotional support, they’re more likely to be open and receptive to programming that is designed and delivered by their peers. Peer mentoring programs are very successful in this regard. Educational and outreach campaigns that are designed and delivered by peers can promote successful navigation of the university experience.
3. Identify students at risk
Early identification of mental health problems is critical in the prevention of suicide and an essential component of an effective campus mental health promotion and suicide prevention initiative. Studies show that among students who have died by suicide, a vast majority of them did not receive mental health care. Identifying students at risk includes supporting students’ transition to university life by continuing care for new students with histories of mental health problems or substance misuse; ensuring students are offered mental health and substance misuse screenings; and training students, staff, and faculty to identify, consult, and refer students who may be at risk for these issues to services on campus.
4. Increase help-seeking behavior
Students often turn to their friends or family before seeking mental health care services in times of emotional distress. There are many obstacles to students seeking support from mental health professionals, including uncertainty of where or how to find services, uncertainty about whether these services are effective, questions about costs and insurance coverage, as well as cultural and societal stigmas around mental illness and accessing treatment. Campuses are encouraged to address these barriers to help-seeking through student mental health campaigns aimed at normalizing help-seeking, destigmatizing mental health problems, and educating students about support and treatment resources.
5. Provide mental health and substance misuse services
Colleges and universities should ensure that all students are offered comprehensive mental health care that offers flexible hours and treatment modalities, responds quickly to those at high risk of suicide, and provides off-campus referrals for longer-term treatment as needed. Campus mental health services should ensure adequate staff-to-student ratios, and hire and train a staff of clinicians that are qualified to serve a diverse group of students with various needs. The provision of substance use education, prevention, and treatment is also essential. Education about the dangers of substance misuse and drug diversion; the connection between substance use and relationship violence, academic performance, and overall well-being; and a variety of treatment options – either on campus or in the community – are important considerations for institutions.
6. Follow crisis management procedures
Schools that have crisis management procedures ensure that campus-wide policies and protocols are responsive to students that are experiencing mental health or substance-related emergencies, and provide clinical support for these students. Postvention protocols ensure a streamlined process, establishing an appropriate institutional response to a campus emergency such as a suicide or death, and are essential to supporting the emotional health of the campus community. Providing access to a crisis phone, text line, or after-hours services at all schools is critical in a campus setting.
7. Restrict access to lethal means
A wealth of research shows that suicide can be prevented by removing or limiting access to self-harm. This means that restrictions on college campuses should include policies that limit students’ access to firearms or other weapons, control toxic chemicals in laboratories, and limit access to high places such as rooftops or windows. Campuses should conduct an annual environmental scan to inspect buildings and facilities, identify potential access to dangerous means, and take action to remove or reduce these risks.
Additionally, this model uses an engagement process anchored in strategic planning and equitable implementation. Thoughtful decisions are made for prioritizing and selecting specific planning tactics that address the needs of each specific campus. And, equitable implementation incorporates equity and inclusion into implementation practice to ensure the needs of students of color and underserved groups are being addressed at all stages of the approach on college campuses.
[Source: National Academy of Medicine]
Suicide prevention advocacy and virtual care
Effective suicide prevention is comprehensive. It requires a combination of efforts that work together to address different aspects of the problem and, as part of communication efforts, raise awareness of suicide prevention in virtual places where students connect.
A recent survey published by Inside Higher Ed found that 24% of students don’t know where to seek help on campus if they’re struggling with mental health. When asked to grade their college on its mental health services, 30% of students said they did not know enough about the mental health services to even assign a grade. This lays plain the fact that colleges and universities can and must do more to educate students on the resources available to them to support mental health.
Consider ways to share suicide prevention messages and mental health resources in your college or university’s social media, mail communication, and online student portals. Make sure students know about the 24/7 support and virtual health care options available to them. Crisis situations can occur any time of day, meaning that in-the-moment care is a critical component to suicide prevention. Raise awareness of where students can turn if they feel like they need support when it’s outside the business hours for campus health care.
Peer-to-peer support is another way to create onramps to mental health support and reduce the stigma of seeking care as part of a suicide prevention program. To offer students the opportunity to take that first step in their mental health journey, TimelyMD recently announced the addition of Peer Community within the TimelyCare virtual health and well-being platform. This is an anonymous, peer-to-peer support tool that provides students a place to connect with other students facing similar challenges across the country. While peer-to-peer support is not a substitute for counseling or crisis support from a licensed mental health provider, it can encourage students to try formal counseling or talk therapy when needed.
When creating advocacy efforts for suicide prevention, consider how all virtual mental health resources and student services available can provide support. Contact TimelyMD to explore how a virtual health and well-being solution can be part of your campus suicide prevention program to enhance your comprehensive approach to suicide prevention.