College Dreams Dashed

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Parents often envision college as a crowning achievement for their children, cementing a common bond of their responsibility toward an ideal goal in their child's life. The most unimaginable and discordant topic countering the enthusiasm and imaginings of college challenges and opportunities is the numbing subject of suicide. It’s not that suicide is so rare but parents are much more prone to caution their young adults about the danger of not completing their homework than understanding if their child feels emotional despair—a considerably more lethal danger.

There are many reasons for the lack of conversation around suicide. Colleges are increasingly overwhelmed by the extent of emotional needs of entering classes, as well as fearful of the negative stigma suicide attaches to their college reputation--so it's not front an center. And parents are both uninformed and unprepared about how to respond to this topic which often feels unrelated to their children or to which parents feel in denial. In fact, there is no organized system for colleges to report student deaths (9) and parents are unsure of how to navigate this conversation.

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Is there a higher rate of suicide currently or are we just hearing more about it? The CDC has a report that came out within the past year showing suicide rates have increased 24% across almost all demographic groups in the past 15 years 1 increasing by 24% 2 .

Here are some facts regarding college suicide:

· Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students.

· Over half of college students have had thoughts about suicide.

· Twice as many young men, ages 20-24, commit suicide, compared with young women. In teens, ages 17-19, the ratio is even greater, with suicide claiming nearly five times the number of young men as women.

· Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, but men more likely to suicide.

· There are over 1,100 suicides at colleges per year—and those numbers may be much greater as attributions for college suicide are often minimized (10), with some sources reporting than an estimated 1,500 college students die by suicide each year 3 .

· One in 12 college students make a plan to suicide during their college career.

· 1.5 out of 100 students have actually attempted suicide.

· There were more than twice as many suicides (44,193) in the US as there were homicides (17,793) 4 .

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Parents are often unaware of the distress of their college kids, whether that’s related to the weakness of the emotional bond or the students’ choice to manage life alone and not impose on parents. Authentic connections, however, are an evident antidote to the loneliness and despair reported by suicidal persons. This subject appears the most significant area to improve as college students reporting suicidal ideation identify the following as their greatest difficulties:

· Anxiety

· Depression

· Physical and Mental Illnesses

· Academic Pressure

· Family Conflicts

· Financial Pressure

· Loss of a Relationship

· Sexual Minorities

· Bullying

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Among some of the initial results from a current National Surveys College Suicide for College Student an Parents* (See, comparing parent and student responses revealed the following:

· Most of the college students who attempted suicide described anxiety, depression, and feeling overwhelmed by academic workload as the major stressors in their life.

· While parents believed stress and anxiety as the main causes of their children’s suicidal ideation, college students identified family stress and finances as the major contributors.

Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Because children are great mimics, limit your own media use. In fact, you'll be more available for and connected with your children if you're interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen.

· Most parents believed that “parents and friends” to be most critical in stopping suicidal enactment; students agree in saying that, if the “darkness had not set in too strong,” “love of family, friends, and pets were better at preventing students from acting out their suicidal thoughts than medication and therapy.”

· In both the parents and college student surveys, women responded more than 90% of the time. Although men are most vulnerable to suicide, men are less prone to communicate about suicide, as men are not encouraged to express vulnerability and when men express vulnerability they are often shamed.

· “Alcohol abuse” was identified by both parents and college students as a critical precursor—although college students also detailed additional specific illicit drugs as significant.

· “Mental health,” “family stress,” and “financial stress,” respectively, were identified as the most problematic matters for students during college, while parents identified such concerns only half as much as significant to the distress carried by their children, highlighting “the loss of a relationship” as most distressful.

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· While most parents stated that they had discussed suicide with their children (87%), college students stated that they had not discussed suicide with their parents (60%).

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Adding to the communications barrier are laws of privacy that prevent colleges and universities from notifying parents about serious student difficulties, even as counselors and school officials are aware of serious concerns; colleges and universities appear to inherit and retain responsibility to manage both emotional issues and suicidal situations. This is not without an identity struggle for schools; are colleges telling parents we’ll take care of your child in total? Should parents know if their child is suicidal from school officials? Is the college domain exclusively academic? And can colleges negotiate a role somewhere in between?

Most students with suicide ideation reported that they had not gone to college counseling services to address their concerns (36%). Of that group, while some students described positive support from counseling staff following one session (23%), others identified a lack of perceived confidentiality, long waits, limited sessions, and incompetent service as major reasons for not returning. Another study, in 2013, found that 86% of the students who committed suicide had not accessed campus counseling services 5 .

Training staff on campuses concerning suicide intervention appears as a basic step to provide the most immediate help to students at suicide risk. In a survey of 70 U.S. colleges and universities, over half the students surveyed reported some form of suicidal thinking in their lives with 18% stating that they had seriously considered attempting suicide during their lifetime 6 .

In addition to presenting this topic, a series of blogs will follow featuring insights from the surveys that address causes, the parents’ role, gaining assistance, and prevention considerations regarding college suicide, in addition to recommendations about how colleges and universities can best manage college suicide—which is nothing less than an epidemic.

Reduce the pace. Speak with your child in an unhurried way, pausing frequently. Wait a few seconds after your child finishes before you begin to speak. Your own easy relaxed speech will be far more effective than any advice such as “slow down” or “try it again slowly. For some children, it is also helpful to introduce a more relaxed pace of life for awhile.

*The National Surveys College Suicide for College Student an Parents has had over 300 respondents to date. Participants self-selected to participate from around the country, representing a cross-section of culture, race, sexual orientation; however, not gender. Consistent with research on suicide, relatively few men responded, under 10%.