Aug. 18, 2008 -- BOSTON -- A comprehensive study of suicidal thinking among college students found more than half of the 26,000 surveyed had suicidal thoughts at some point during their lifetime. The web-based survey conducted in spring 2006 used separate samples of undergraduate and graduate students from 70 colleges and universities across the country.
Of the 15,010 undergraduates, average age 22: 55 percent had ever thought of suicide; 18 percent seriously considered it; and 8 percent made an attempt. Among 11,441 graduate students, average age 30: Exactly half had such thoughts; 15 percent seriously considered it and 6 percent made an attempt.
"Suicidal crises are a common occurrence on college campuses," says Chris Brownson, director of the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center in Austin and one of the study's researchers.
The findings, which were presented Sunday at a session of the American Psychological Association's annual meeting, were compiled from online surveys conducted by the National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education based at the UT-Austin.
"A lot of previous research has indicated the severity of mental health issues on college campuses has been increasing -- not decreasing -- and when you look at the lifetime prevalence rates, those are alarming statistics," Brownson says.
Within the 12 months before answering the survey, 6 percent of undergraduates and 4 percent of graduate students reported seriously considering suicide. However, among those students who thought about it within the past year, an episode of suicidal thinking was typically brief. For both groups, more than half of these episodes lasted a day or less, with about one-third reporting such thoughts lasted an hour or less. Suicidal thinking is frequently recurring, though. The study also found that among those who thought about killing themselves within the past year, just under half of both groups told no one.
The reasons for suicidal thinking varied, with wanting relief from emotional or physical pain as the major reason. Others were romantic relationship troubles; a desire to end their life; and school-related problems. The preferred method for suicide was overdosing on drugs, with half of those who had tried to kill themselves reporting using drugs.
Whether there are in fact more disturbed young people in college today is a subject of debate, according to the researchers, who say more young people with mental health issues are able to attend college as a result of drugs and other treatment measures; more women are in college and they are more likely to seek professional help; and colleges have improved their tracking of those with mental health concerns.
Of the students surveyed, 17 percent of undergraduates and 22 percent of graduate students reported having ever taken medicine for mental health concerns.
"Most people in university environments don't really appreciate how much suicidality students engage in. They only see the high-profile examples, but they don't see the everyday anguish students are going though," says UT psychologist David Drum, lead author of the research.
"A study like this raises awareness of the fact this is a more ubiquitous phenomenon. We really need to keep rescuing those in need, but we need to be shifting some of our focus to building resilience and resistance and immunity to ever engage in these thoughts."