College Suicide Epidemic: What Parents Need to Know

Tragic College Suicide Epidemic Claiming Young Lives in West Virginia

Resources to Support Your Child

Across the nation and right here in West Virginia, the already troubling upward trend in suicide mortality has become epidemic. No one is immune. Suicide can happen to anyone — and it is hitting young adults especially hard.

Suicide: The Second Leading Cause of Death for College Students

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States was already at its highest level since 1941 — and the 2nd leading cause of death for college students. As suicide rates continue to rise, we have witnessed unprecedented public health measures undertaken in an effort to curb viral spread yet little has been done to address the serious issue of lives lost due to utter despair. Read on to learn more about the suicide epidemic claiming the promise of our youth and what you can do as a parent to support your college-aged child.

Impact of Pandemics and Economic Crises on Mental Health of College Students

Previous studies have shown that as pandemics and economic crises spread, a broad range of social and emotional pressures tend to negatively impact the mental health of vulnerable groups (including college students) in an especially dramatic fashion — leading some of them to take their own lives. Unfortunately, this appears to be what is currently occurring.

Across the nation, more than 40% of all Americans (and over 75% of young adults) struggled with at least one drug or mental-health-related concern before the COVID pandemic. By July 2020, CDC Director Robert Redfield reported that among high school students, drug overdose and suicide mortality rates were far higher than COVID-related deaths. As of August, 25.5% of those aged 18-25 reported seriously considering suicide in the previous 30 days. Most troubling, public health and government officials knew, or should have known, this was coming. We are still not seeing these young people get the support they need.

Current Added Stressors Affecting College Students

In addition to factors ordinarily faced by many college students and the already significant mental health crisis, these young people have recently been dealt another great blow. While dealing with reasonably anticipated effects such as depression, anxiety, peer pressure, and increased workload, they have been forced to withstand a barrage of additional sustained stresses during an especially vulnerable period, when trying to form self-identity and establish their place in the world. Stressors directly resulting from the pandemic and auxiliary factors include:

  • severe social isolation
  • widespread job loss and increased economic stress
  • severely reduced/diminished access to healthcare and religious, cultural and social support systems
  • increased political anxiety
  • significant food and housing insecurity
  • loss of hope and uncertainty about the future
  • feeling “stuck,” unable to plan and move forward in life
  • feeling like a burden on parents and society

There Is Reason for Parents to be Concerned

Although it is still too early to fully analyze data, early estimates of increased suicide mortality rates have been startling across all age groups, prompting the Journal of the American Medical Association to call the situation a “perfect storm” for a suicide epidemic. In extrapolating this rise in suicide mortality to our already at-risk college-aged population, combined with ongoing lack of external supports, there is reason for parents to be especially concerned.

Negative Effects of a Pandemic Can Persist for Years

Unfortunately, history has shown that mental distress and suicidal behavior arising from severe, long-term life disruption do not tend to reach a peak for some time after the event. It is likely to persist for years. Although short-term crises can actually result in a temporary decrease in suicide rates as people pull together and support each other, negative effects (such as sustained loss of income, hunger, and homelessness) tend to worsen and accumulate over time. Even after the pandemic ends, we still have quite a long way to go.

What Can I Do?

Suicide Prevention: How to Support Your College-Aged Child

Suicide is preventable. Even casual interventions have been shown to significantly reduce suicide rates. Mental health is intimately related to physical health; unfortunately, access to quality healthcare and support systems across the board remain beyond the reach of many. Despite this, there are many ways we can take action and support our college-aged children now and in the coming years.

Reach Out — Ask your child how he or she is doing on a regular basis. Have they thought about harming themself? Is anyone harming them — physically or verbally?

Listen — Set aside time to actually listen to your child. We often believe we are listening, but in many cases we are only listening to respond. Instead, let your child guide the direction of the conversation. Ask open ended questions, but try not to offer advice unless you are asked.

Be Open and Honest — Make it a point to talk about mental health. Share your own experiences and personal struggles. We all have them. It can be helpful just to know we are not alone in the challenges we face — especially from those we look up to and respect.

Be Sure Your Child Knows You Will Help — Tell your child you are always there for them to talk and help. You may have told them a million times and assume they know this, but just go ahead and tell them again. They need to hear that you love them, care for them, and are always available — and they need to hear it now.

Stifle the Stigma — Although we know that everyone faces ups and downs in life because we’ve weathered these storms ourselves, there can be significant misunderstanding of mental health issues among young adults. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they’re struggling — and fail to get the help they need. In your words and deeds, be sure your college-aged child understands that there is no shame in seeking help. Remind them of the importance of protecting their mental well-being.

Provide Access to a Mental Health Professional — Whether or not your child admits to emotional or mental health challenges, let them know help is available. Of those college students who died by suicide, an estimated 80-90% were not receiving counseling. If someone you love suffers from a mental illness, learn more how you can help support them. Highly effective treatments are available for a broad range of mental health challenges. For those with suicidal thoughts, successful treatment can virtually eliminate these ideas.

Provide Wellness Events/Materials — If you know there is a specific activity or hobby your child enjoys, make an effort to participate with them. Be sure to express your appreciation — let them know you had a good time! If you can’t spend time together, consider sending favorite songs back and forth, a subscription to an in-person or online yoga or wellness class, a massage gift certificate, or other things you think your child will enjoy.

Address Alcohol Abuse — More than 60% of college students admit to binge-drinking. This can lead to death by alcohol poisoning, DUI-related crashes, severe depression and risky behavior which may contribute to suicidal ideation. If you have reason to suspect that your child needs help, they probably do.

Prepare Your Freshman — Starting the college journey can be exciting, but also extremely stressful. Help your child develop a plan to cope with the challenges and discuss what to expect in advance to ease the transition.

Know the Risk Factors

Potential Signs of Suicidal Crisis

If your child is experiencing any of the following signs, it may indicate the presence of a crisis situation which may lead to suicidal thoughts and/or actions:

  • Drug & alcohol abuse
  • Anxiety & depression
  • Unemployment
  • Chronic physical/emotional pain
  • Financial pressures
  • Eviction, displacement & homelessness
  • Involvement in an abusive relationship & domestic violence
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Unexplained personality changes
  • Reckless behavior
  • Intense internal conflict
  • Loss of loved one
  • Recent traumatic/stressful event
  • Victim of bullying/harassment/crime
  • Underlying (untreated) mental illness
  • Withdrawing from friends & family
  • Tying up “loose ends” (giving away possessions, settling debts, etc.)
  • Mentioning suicide, killing themself, wanting to die, feeling trapped, hopeless, experiencing especially unbearable pain, anger, sadness, despair and similar topics
  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
  • Dramatic change in sleeping/eating habits
  • History of friend/family suicide; personal suicide attempt(s)

The list above is far from inclusive. In some cases, there may be little to no warning signs present. Learn more about suicide warning signs.

Suicide Prevention Resources

Consider printing and posting the following list of resources somewhere in your home and/or provide your child with a copy. You may want to affix a copy inside a cabinet, garage, or out-of-the-way area where family members are likely to retreat when experiencing challenging emotions. They should be aware of the location in case there is an urgent need for assistance.

If you think you might need help, you do. If you are feeling hopeless or in despair, don’t just hope it’ll go away. Take action and ask for help.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
Message the Crisis Text Line: 741741
Download the Just in Case on the App Store for iOS and Android

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