College Kids Aren't the Only Young People Struggling with Mental-Health Issues

Historical data suggests that young people who don't go to college are at a higher risk of suicide.

Aug 4 2016, 4:00am

Image via Enzo Figueres/Getty

In 2014, UPenn freshman Madison Holleran leapt to her death from a parking structure on her college campus. Her suicide made national news, and the New York Times decried the "pressure for perfection" causing college students to take their own lives. The article joined a chorus warning of a mental-health crisis at US colleges, pointing to everything from trigger warnings in lectures to long wait times at counseling centers as proof that today's undergrads are vulnerable and easily broken.

But a large body of evidence, including a study published last month in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, casts doubt on this narrative. Historical data suggests that college students might actually be better off than ever before—and that those who don't go to college are at a higher risk of suicide.

The study, led by researchers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), found that people aged 18–25 who don't go to college are more likely to attempt suicide with a plan than their college-attending peers. (Attempting suicide with a plan is usually considered more dangerous than attempting it without one, as planned suicides are more likely to end in death or serious injury.)

"We don't want to ignore the problems of college students," study co-author Richard McKeon, branch chief for suicide prevention at SAMHSA, told VICE. "The important thing is that people don't think that college students are actually at greater risk [than their non-student peers] when the opposite is true."

The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry paper follows decades of research showing that full-time college attendance is associated with lower rates of suicide—specifically, deaths, rather than just attempts or ideation. The Big Ten Student Suicide Study, published in 1997 and based on data collected in 1980–1990, found that suicide rates for current college students were about one-half those of non-college students of the same age range. That same finding has been corroborated by multiple studies since, most notably in those led by University of Rochester psychiatry professor Allan Schwartz.

Researchers aren't sure why college students are less likely to die by suicide or attempt suicide with a plan. Schwartz has argued that a lack of access to firearms is key; others point to the protective nature of the campus community. Another possibility that remains unconfirmed by research is that the kids who end up going to college have lower rates of mental-health problems to begin with. One thing is certain: Suicides like Madison Holleran's are the exception, not the rule.

Psychiatrist Victor Schwartz (no relation to Allan) is the medical director of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide on college campuses. He argues that college students' mental-health issues might get more media attention simply because it makes for a good story. "It feels like such a high-stakes issue, because college is associated with the path to success," he said. "When kids this age have issues, it feels like a very big deal."

Victor Schwartz is skeptical of the narrative of a mental-health crisis on campus, pointing out that much of the data is more positive than it seems at first glance. For instance, the 2015 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA) found that 9.6 percent of students had seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 1.6 percent had actually attempted it. Those numbers may be upsettingly high, but they've also barely changed since the survey's first edition in 2000. "You'd think that if, in some generic way, college students were sicker than they were 20 years ago, these numbers would reflect that," Schwartz said. In other words, there is no current crisis.

The ACHA-NCHA survey also said that more than 30 percent of college students have felt so depressed in the past year they found it difficult to function. Not an encouraging statistic—but previous results suggest that it's down from 40 percent in the year 2000.

What is different is more students are getting help for their depression. A lot of articles about the "college health crisis" refer to long wait times for counseling centers as a sign that more students have mental-health issues—but it might simply be a sign that more students are seeking treatment.

The uptick in college students seeking on-campus counseling can be explained, Schwartz said, by the drastic cuts in community mental healthcare in the past few decades. Students who would've been referred to outside providers for care are now flooding college counseling centers because those outside providers are no longer there. "We work with schools out in the Southwest where there just isn't anyone in the community to refer students to," he added.

Both McKeon and co-author Beth Han emphasized that their research shouldn't be taken as downplaying the importance of suicide prevention on campuses. But they also pointed out that non-college-attending 18- to 25-year-olds may be comparatively underserved, even though they represent 59 percent of their peer group.

Much of the problem is access. Campus suicide prevention efforts can loop in counselors, faculty members, administrators, and resident assistants to ensure multiple touchpoints for every at-risk student. "The challenge for the other groups is: How do you reach them?" McKeon pointed out. "It's not as straightforward."

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) at any time of day or night to talk to a trained counselor in your area.