Over Half of College Students Surveyed Had Suicidal Thoughts, Says Study

More than half of 26,000 students surveyed across 70 colleges and universities reported having at least one episode of suicidal thinking at some point in their lives, according to a University of Texas at Austin study.

Fifteen percent of students surveyed reported they have seriously considered suicide and more than five percent reported at least one suicide attempt in their life.

Dr. David J. Drum, a professor in the College of Education's Department of Educational Psychology, and Dr. Chris Brownson, director of the campus Counseling and Mental Health Center, were co-investigators of the Web-based survey conducted by the National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education. The survey was administered in spring 2006 and gathered information about a range of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among college students. Counseling directors at the participating campuses as well as two experts in suicidology reviewed the survey.

According to study results, six percent of undergraduates and four percent of graduate students reported having seriously considered suicide in the 12 months prior to taking the survey. Drum and Brownson propose that at an average college with 18,000 undergraduate students, about 1,080 undergraduates seriously contemplate taking their lives at least once within a single year. About two-thirds of those who contemplate suicide do so more than once in a 12-month period.

The majority of students surveyed described a typical episode of suicidal thinking as intense and brief, with more than half the episodes lasting a day or less. The researchers found that more than half of students who experienced a recent suicidal crisis did not seek professional help or tell anyone about their suicidal thoughts.

The researchers used separate samples of undergraduate and graduate students. College sizes ranged from 820 to 58,156 students, with 17,752 being the average. Of the 15,010 undergraduates, 62 percent were female and 38 percent were male.

Seventy-nine percent were white and 21 percent were minorities. Ninety-five percent identified themselves as heterosexual and five percent self-identified as bisexual, homosexual or undecided. The average age was 22.

Of the 11,441 graduate students, 60 percent were female and 40 percent were male. Seventy-two percent were white and 28 percent were minorities. Ninety-four percent identified themselves as heterosexual and six percent identified themselves as bisexual, homosexual or undecided. The average age was 30.

Both undergraduate and graduate students gave the following reasons for their suicidal thinking, in this order:

  • relief from emotional or physical pain
  • problems with romantic relationships
  • the desire to end their life
  • problems with school or academics

Fourteen percent of undergraduates and eight percent of graduate students who had seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey made a suicide attempt. Nineteen percent of undergraduates who attempted suicide and 28 percent of the graduate students required medical attention. Half of those who attempted suicide reported using a drug overdose, according to investigators.

From the survey results, researchers concluded that suicidal thoughts are a frequently recurring experience similar to substance abuse, depression and eating disorders. They also found that relying solely upon the current treatment model, which identifies and helps students who are in crisis, is insufficient for addressing and reducing all forms of suicide-related behavior on campuses.

"Our study revealed," said Drum, "that over half of the survey participants who reported feeling suicidal did not receive professional assistance, despite significant improvements in detection, referral and treatment of suicidal students.

"To reach this segment of the student body, we need to augment the current crisis-focused treatment approach with a more proactive and preventive service paradigm that's capable of reducing the prevalence of suicidality among college students. Our goals should be extended to enhance resilience, decrease personal vulnerabilities, minimize encounters with traumatic events and in other ways to fortify students' resistance to suicidal thoughts and behaviors."

The National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education, of which Brownson is director, is at The University of Texas at Austin and was founded by Drum.