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Suicide and Suicide Prevention on College Campuses in Virginia

9/26/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Jane Wiggins, Ph. D

It is difficult to determine how many college students die each year by suicide. "Student" status can be hard to define and is not typically recorded by a coroner or medical examiner following a death.

The BAD NEWS: We do know that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students and that more teenagers and young adults die by suicide than from all medical illnesses combined. It is estimated that we lose about 1,350 college students to suicide each year; roughly 3 young people per day.

The GOOD NEWS: Statistics also tell us that 18-24 year olds who are in college are at HALF the risk of suicide compared to their non-student counterparts. That is, being part of a campus community is believed to have a protective effect. While we don't have the full explanation for these findings, experts suggest that key factors may be reduced access to firearms, the greater availability of mental health care and richer connections to a supportive network. The continued study of suicide risk within campus communities may well teach us some strategies for preventing suicide among 18-24 year olds in non-campus settings.

We also know that preventing suicide may help to prevent violence of other kinds. Clearly, preventing suicide, suicidal thinking and suicidal behavior are a priority to those who work to create safe campus communities.

Historically, the work of suicide prevention has been accomplished through a mental health model, in which those at risk for suicide receive intervention and follow-up services in a mental health care setting. While effective triage and crisis management will always be essential elements of a comprehensive plan, a public health model protects limited crisis management resources by expanding "upstream" prevention efforts.

The Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia works to reduce risk for suicide in Virginia's college and university communities by helping campus leaders to:

  • Promote mental health and emotional resilience for all students;
  • Enhance strategies for early identification of mental health concerns;
  • Encourage help-seeking among students;
  • Provide options for those in need of support services; and
  • Respond effectively to individuals who may be at risk for suicide.

As the rest of the country moves to a broader, more proactive and comprehensive public health model for reducing suicide risk, college and university campus communities will too. One of our primary goals is to further that transition in higher education settings across Virginia.

For more information, go to CampusSuicidePreventionVA.org.

Jane Wiggins, Ph.D. has been a school psychologist for the past 30 years. She holds a doctoral degree in psychology from Syracuse University and a masters' degree in education from Bucknell University. Jane's expertise is in working with institutions that serve youth, particularly K-12 and higher education settings. She is currently the director of the Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia; a partnership between the Virginia Department of Health and the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services at James Madison University. In that role, Jane provides resources, training, consultation in suicide prevention to colleges and universities across the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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