Suicide Amongst College Students
by Kelly Martinsen
Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers and young adults. A national survey in the spring by the American College Health Association found one in four students had screened positive for suicidal thoughts and 2 percent had attempted suicide in the previous 12 months. With nearly 16 million undergraduate students nationwide, that makes for a staggering number of students thinking about and attempting suicide.
When we hear of a young person taking their own life, we often find ourselves experiencing a moment of sadness while impulsively wondering, “Why?” George Colt, author of November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide, explains it as the need to attribute suicide to a specific cause so that we can then remove ourselves from the threat. He further describes the cause of most suicides is not one event but rather, “that they couldn’t see that it (life) would get better.” The individual had lost hope.
Op-ed pieces have placed the spotlight on college athletes who have recently died by suicide, suggesting the stressful atmosphere within college athletics is the driving force behind their decision to end their lives. But of the 1,100 deaths, only seven were athletes, so this assumption is a dangerous diversion from the truth. Hopelessness is the linked co-morbidity preceding suicide. It is the mental health crisis plaguing our youth, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetime.
Times are different. Teenage lives are broadcast to an unfiltered audience. The endless burden for our youth to “post” their success, while at the same time scrolling through the posts of others who seem to be having more success than them, is perpetuating a cycle of self-criticism and constant judgment. In 2001, when someone missed the winning basket at their D-1 school, or in 1992, when a young musician played the wrong violin note at their smaller private school, the mistake did not have the opportunity to “go viral.” Before social media, children still experienced disappointments, but they weren’t made harder to endure by seeing online everyone else who is “killing it” (or at least posting that they are killing it). Our children are navigating a tightrope where on one side is the risk of failure and on the other is the risk of others being more successful than them. In their minds, there is a unique digital permanence to these moments. This can lead to a loss of hope.
We must continually screen and prescribe hope. When a glimmer of hope can be found, it often becomes even greater through the passing of time. With every single issue a child faces, they must be taught to understand that “this too shall pass.”
This is our children’s pandemic. Colleges must screen for the disease of hopelessness with at least the same passion and fervor as a nurse verifying a vaccination card. Colleges must offer screenings, confidential, free counseling and more. When sending a child to college, ask the university questions: “Do you have mandatory mental health check-ins? Safe speech portals?” Ask emphatically, “What are your strategies in place to detect and treat hopelessness?” Then, ask yourself as a parent, “What are mine?”
Kelly Martinsen is a life coach for adults, parents and teens and the author of the book A Year of Inspired Living and the parenting book, You Are Almost There.