Campus Suicide Crisis: A Need for Prevention

Students, college
Students, college
The lifetime prevalence rate for serious suicidal ideation on campuses is on the rise.

ATLANTA, Georgia — College represents a period when young men and women graduate to an environment of higher-level learning, increased freedom, and independence, but also one of increased responsibility and stress.  Coupled with less parental restriction and increased exposure to drugs and alcohol, these young adults are often unable to manage the transition effectively and are at risk for mental disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation.

According to research conducted by Penn State on college student mental health, the lifetime prevalence rate for serious suicidal ideation has increased substantially over the past 5 years.1  Currently, the suicide rate for college students is between 0.5 and 7.5 per 100,000, with more than 1000 suicides occurring on US college campuses each year.2 Suicide is now one of the leading causes of death among people aged 15 to 24.2 

To more deeply investigate this crisis, researchers from the University of Virginia (UVA) have established a database to capture information related to student presentations to the emergency department (ED) with a goal of identifying the prevalence of suicidal ideation and suicide attempt, as well as epidemiological characteristics of these students.3

The research was presented at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in Atlanta, Georgia.

Data from ED visits made by students to the UVA Health System were collected based on psychiatric ICD-9 codes, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance-induced mental disorders, personality disorders, poisonings, suicide, and self-inflicted poisoning.  The investigators then identified the percentage of ED visits due to suicide attempt or ideation.  Further assessment of the data provided information on patient clinical characteristics

Out of a total of 8155 ED visits, 127 met the criteria for suicidal ideation or attempt. There were no significant differences seen based on gender (men, 55 [43.4%]; women, 72 [56.7%]; P=.220). However, students of Asian ethnicity, those with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, and those taking antipsychotic medication had a greater tendency to present to the ED with suicidal ideation.

Among those who presented with suicidal attempt, the most common methods employed included overdose (21%), cutting (9%), and hanging (5%).  Psychiatric care or therapy was determined to have been rendered to 41% of presenting patients.  Hopelessness, insomnia, chronic medications, chronic pain, low self esteem, and academic/financial/relationship stressors were identified as prominent risk factors for suicidal ideation and suicide attempt.

The investigators concluded that “students presenting to the ED for psychiatric distress may benefit from therapy and psychiatric care through numerous avenues across the university and surrounding community.”


1. Penn State Center for Collegiate Mental Health. 2015 annual report. Available at: Accessed May 14, 2016.

2. Suicide statistics.  Emory University website. Available at: Accessed May 14, 2016.

3. Torbey S, Robinson DM, Vakkalanka P, Holstege CP, Thomson JA. Suicide crisis on campus: suicide attempts and ideation in the collegiate population evaluated in the emergency department. Poster presentation at: 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association; May 14-18, 2016; Atlanta, GA. P2-063.