The pressures of college can feel insurmountable at times. Being away from home for the first time, managing a tough schedule, financial stressors, dealing with rigorous academic requirements, relationship issues, and substance abuse—all of these factors can contribute to mental health struggles.
Some college students find that activities that helped reduce stress in high school— talking to friends and family, participating in sports, talking to trusted teachers—are suddenly absent once they go to college. The combination of a high-stress environment, social disruption, and a sense of being alone can lead to depression and even suicidal thoughts. Awareness of warning signs, knowing how to talk about suicide, and understanding how to manage stress can all go a long way in preventing suicide among college students.
College Suicide Statistics
The transitions associated with college can make it hard for many people to cope with the increasing stressors that come with being on their own for the first time.
Research shows that about 10% of college students report that they’ve seriously considered suicide over the past year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between ages 15-24. Other reports suggest that more than a quarter of all college students think about suicide to at least some degree. Students who are under financial or academic stress, students who are living with disabilities, and students who are transgender or gender fluid are more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other groups.
There’s no way around it: mental health issues are a serious threat to many college students. About 1,100 college students die by suicide each year. Understanding the reasons behind why suicide is so common for college students can help save lives.
Suicide Warning Signs
Contrary to popular belief, many people talk to others about suicide before actually following through with a plan. People who are considering suicide may openly talk about wanting to die. They may also refer to guilt or shame surrounding a real or perceived action. College students may feel like they are a burden to others (a financial burden to their parents, for example, especially if they feel like they aren’t succeeding in college the way their parents would like), which may lead to suicidal thoughts.
People who are considering suicide may feel trapped, hopeless, or like they have no way out of their current difficult situation other than suicide. If a person is suicidal, people close to them may notice that they seem sad, anxious, or agitated to an unusual degree. They may also seem angry or rageful.
Physical pain can also cause some people to consider suicide. People who are diagnosed with a terminal illness may consider suicide to lessen their suffering, or to relieve the people around them of the perceived burden of taking care of the person. While these feelings are understandable for someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s important that their healthcare providers, friends, and family keep a close eye on their emotional state so they can provide the support necessary to maintain their mental health as well as possible.
People who are considering suicide may also exhibit changes from their normal behavior. These changes may include:
- Taking unusual risks, such as drinking or using drugs excessively or driving very fast
- An increase in substance use
- Change in eating or sleeping habits
- Mood swings
- Making a plan to die by suicide
- Researching different ways to die by suicide
- Telling people that they’re planning to die by suicide
- Saying goodbye to family and friends (may or may not explicitly state that they’re planning on dying)
- Giving away prized possessions
- Creating a will
- Talking about feeling trapped or not being able to cope with their own emotional state
- Trying to access a means to suicide, such as a gun or pills
Of course, not everyone who is planning to die by suicide will exhibit all of the possible symptoms of having suicidal thoughts. If you notice a significant change in the behavior of a loved one that leads to you think that they may be considering dying by suicide, it’s important to take next steps to protect them and support their mental health.
In addition to individual signs that a person may be considering suicide, there are risk factors in a person’s life that can make it more likely that they’ll think about killing themselves.
Factors that may contribute to an increased risk of suicide include:
- Previous attempts of suicide or previous suicidal thoughts
- History of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions
- Trouble with the law
- Substance use
- A tendency to be impulsive or aggressive
- Financial issues, including job or scholarship loss
- Being the victim of a crime (especially a violent crime)
- A history of childhood abuse or other adverse experiences
- Being the victim of bullying or experiencing the loss of a close friendship
- Relationship problems
- Difficulty making friends or fitting into a community
- Lack of access to effective mental health care
Not all people who experience the above issues or warning signs commit suicide. There are many factors that can help protect people from suicidal thoughts, including the development of problem-solving skills, stress management skills, having reasons to live (such as pets, friends, family, unachieved goals), a sense of cultural or familial identity, a strong support network, feeling connected to others, and the availability of high-quality healthcare.
Where to Seek Help
If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, you’re not alone. While it feels like things will never get better, this usually isn’t the case.
There is help available if you or someone you love is thinking about dying by suicide. Some people worry that by mentioning suicide or asking for help, they’ll be in trouble or required to check in to a mental health institution. This is very rarely the case. When you call a suicide hotline, you have the option to remain anonymous, meaning the person at the other end of the line won’t know who you are. Many people who have considered suicide have talked with others about the state of their mental health and gotten the help that they needed.
If you’re feeling suicidal or are working to help a loved one who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you have several options:
- Call 988, the national suicide and crisis hotline, to learn more about options and connect with a counselor (if you speak Spanish, you can call 1-888-628-9454)
- Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741, where you’ll be connected to a crisis counselor who will work with you to develop next steps to keep you safe and supported
- Click here to chat with the Crisis Text Line without using your phone (you can also message on WhatsApp using this link)
When you call or text a crisis hotline, you’ll be in charge of the conversation. You won’t be met with a barrage of questions, and you won’t have to promise the person at the other end of the line that you’ve resigned yourself from the idea of suicide. The goal of the counselors at a suicide hotline is to help you feel safe, connect you with resources that you need, and provide a listening ear trained to help you through the darkest times.
If you’re calling or texting a crisis hotline to find help for a friend or family member who is living with suicidal thoughts, they’ll help you get the resources you need to help. The counselor on the other end of the line will be able to help you understand more about the right way to talk to someone who is considering suicide, and can connect you with the resources that you need to help connect your loved one with support.
Talking About Suicide
Some people have the misconception that asking someone if they’re considering suicide will make them more likely to follow through if they are, in fact, considering ending their life. Research shows this isn’t true. Talking to a person who is considering suicide about whether they’re having suicidal thoughts is actually more likely to save their life than cause them to follow through.
If you notice that someone you care about is showing warning signs of suicide, talking to them is the right thing to do. People who are having suicidal thoughts often feel alone, and may be unsure of whether the people around them are concerned about their well-being. Talking to someone who you’re worried about can take many forms, and it’s okay to be direct. Saying things like, “You seem really down lately—I’m worried. What’s going on?” can work, and so can being to-the-point, saying something like, “I’m afraid that you’re going to hurt yourself. Are you thinking about suicide?”
Asking a person who is considering suicide questions can also be helpful. Conversation starters may include:
- How long have you been feeling this way?
- Have you told anyone else that you’ve been feeling this way?
- Have you thought about talking to a counselor?
- Is this the first time you’ve considered suicide?
No matter what the response to your questions, be sure to respond in an empathetic and caring way. If someone is in immediate danger—for example, they call you and tell you that they have a gun to their head or that they’ve just taken drugs in an attempt to end their life—call 911.
Remember, if a person is considering suicide you’re not going to plant the thought in their head. When you bring up suicide with someone who is living with suicidal thoughts, you’re letting them know that they can come to you for help. A person who previously felt alone in their thoughts knows that someone cares. Sometimes, that can be all it takes for someone to begin to feel that life is worth living.
Helping Someone in Emotional Pain
Emotional pain hits everyone at some point in life, and providing support to people who are close to you when they go through something difficult can make a world of difference. It can be tough to know what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health or has just gone through a tough life experience.
A good rule of thumb when you’re having a conversation with someone with the goal of helping them through a tough time: don’t bring up your own experiences unless you feel hearing about your experience will genuinely benefit the person and help them feel less alone. Resist the urge to one-up the person’s problems. While it may feel like telling them you’ve been through something you perceive to be more difficult than their issue and came out on the other side, doing so can make the person feel like they aren’t being heard, or can make them feel like there must be something wrong with them if they aren’t strong enough to handle their issue on their own.
Follow these tips to help someone who is struggling through emotional pain:
- Show up. Your simple presence (even if neither of you have anything to say) can help your loved one know that they aren’t alone.
- Validate the person’s feelings. Let them know that given their situation, their feelings make sense. Simple statements like, “Of course you’re struggling—you’re going through something incredibly difficult,” can help a person feel supported.
- Offer help instead of advice. Offer to babysit, bring dinner, watch a movie together, run errands, pick up groceries, or other concrete options that will lift some stress off of the person. Almost always, this is more helpful to a person who is struggling emotionally than listening to someone else give advice.
- Be present and genuine. Fully listen to what the person is saying. Put down your phone. Ask questions if they say something you don’t understand.
Managing Stress: How to be Proactive
It’s important to take steps to manage stress before it becomes a problem. For college students, this is sometimes easier said than done. Academic and social demands can make it hard to prioritize self-care, but doing so is key for a well-rounded college experience.
Stress management techniques many college students find effective include:
- Regular exercise
- Attending mental health sessions
- Spending time with peers, especially in clubs or religious groups
- Maintaining connections with family and friends from home
How Colleges and Universities Can Support Suicide Prevention
Suicide and suicidal thoughts are a clear problem on college campuses, and it’s important that colleges make changes that allow them to better support the mental health of students.
- Develop policies: Many students worry about seeking mental health care due to stigma, or fear that getting treatment may affect their grades or scholarship status. Developing policies that work to support students who are struggling can go a long way in helping students get the help that they need.
- Create comprehensive support: Educating students on warning signs of suicide, how to talk about suicide, and what to do if someone they care about is considering suicide can help create a positive, supportive environment on campus. Talking about suicide can destigmatize suicidal ideation, making it easier for students who are struggling to ask for help.
- Provide mental health services: Providing counseling and other mental health and suicide prevention resources to students who need help is key in allowing students to access care. Many college students do not have health insurance, and allowing them to access these services without having to pay additional fees beyond their tuition can make a difference.
Mental Health and Addiction Services
If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. In addition to the suicide hotline resources listed above, check out these organizations for support and more information: