The books are still fresh, the first exams not yet printed, but college students may have more on their mind than you think. A new study finds one in five students reported thoughts of suicide in the last year, and three out of four reported at least one stressful life event.
The study published in the journal Depression & Anxiety surveyed 67,000 college students across more than 100 institutions, finding high rates for stress events, mental health diagnoses, and the risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts. Minorities were found to be especially vulnerable.
Lead author Cindy Liu, PhD, says the findings are important for both families and colleges. In a news release from Brigham and Women's hospital she notes: “Some stressful events cannot be prevented and, in some cases, are completely normal. But for others, a plan should be in place for family, friends, and colleges to provide support. Our study highlights an urgent need to help students reduce their experience of overwhelming levels of stress during college.”
Liu works in the departments of psychiatry and pediatric newborn medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Hospital officials say she and her colleagues analyzed results from a survey asking students a variety of questions related to depression and anxiety. That includes whether they had been diagnosed or treated for a mental health issue, if they had engaged in self harm, and considered or attempted suicide. The authors note that college years represent a time of increased vulnerability for a wide range of mental health issues, with many common psychiatric conditions beginning during this period of a person's life.
The survey also asked how many stressful life events students had experienced in the past year. Stressful life events are defined as exposures the student felt were traumatic or difficult to handle. They cover a lot of territory, including academics, career-related issues, the death of a family member or friend, family problems, intimate relationships, other social relationships, finances, a health problem of family member or partner. They may even include the student's personal appearance, personal health issues and sleep difficulties.
Some key findings: rates of stressful life events were high, and associated with mental health issues. Three out of four students reported having at least one stressful life event in the past year. And for more than 20 percent of students, there were quite a few events, reporting six or more in the past year. The stress events appeared to take a toll, with stress exposure found to be strongly associated with mental health diagnoses, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
Mental health issues and thoughts of suicide were common in the study. One in four students reported they were diagnosed or treated for a mental health disorder in the past year. One in five had thought about suicide, nearly 20 percent had harmed themselves, and nine percent reported attempting suicide.
Sexual minorities showed high rates of mental health disorders, thoughts of suicide, and self-injury, particularly transgender students. They showed elevated rates of all outcomes, with about two-thirds reporting self injury and more than one-third attempting suicide. More than half of bisexual students reported thoughts of suicide, with more than a quarter reporting a suicide attempt.
Racial and ethnic minorities were found to under-report mental health issues. The study found Asian students had a higher likelihood of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, but reported a lower rate of mental health diagnoses compared to white students. African American students showed a lower likelihood of reporting all outcomes compared to white students.
The survey results were all based on self-reporting, which the authors say needs to be taken into consideration. But they provide an eye-opening glimpse into obstacles college students may be up against.
“Colleges and family members who are sending students off to college need to remember that this is a phase of life where young people are confronted with expectations from new relationships and living situations and other encounters that are stressful,” said Liu.
She and her colleagues say their study's findings point to an urgent need for strategies on campus to help mitigate stress, given its relationship to mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, and get students the help they need during this key developmental period.
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.