The statistics are alarming — but perhaps unsurprising: Suicide has been a leading cause of death among college students for over 80 years; it is currently the second leading cause of death for college students; and approximately 1,100 students in college die by suicide yearly.
And while the research illustrates its prevalence, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s entirely preventable. College students like yourself can make a difference by normalizing conversations around suicide, recognizing signs of danger, and knowing what resources are available to help yourself or another person who is struggling.
To that end, we’ve gathered science-backed data to help you and other college students care for yourselves and others. Read on to learn risk factors, signs of suicidal thinking, and intervention techniques. Equipped with information and strategies, you can use this guide to make a difference — for yourself, your friends, and your community.
Suicide & College: Risk Factors and Signs
Although conversations around mental health are becoming more mainstream, the number of suicide attempts has been steadily increasing each year. To change this pattern, we need to look out for ourselves and others. We can start by educating ourselves about what factors contribute to suicidal ideation and the symptoms that someone might be struggling. By recognizing risk factors and signs of a suicide attempt, we can get help before it is too late. Below, we’ve outlined some common situations that can trigger suicidal thinking.
Previous Suicide Attempts
A common myth about suicide is that an individual won’t try it again after a failed attempt. On the contrary, previous attempts are a strong indicator of future ones. Maintaining mental health and stability is a lifelong process. Even with effective ongoing care, someone may experience setbacks that lead to further attempts on their own life.
Untreated Psychiatric or Mental Health Issues
Nearly 30% of college-aged adults are diagnosed with some type of mental health challenge. However, that number may be much higher for students with limited access to healthcare or internalized shame about their mental health status. Left insufficiently or untreated, these conditions and the suffering associated with them are a leading cause of suicide.
Many Life Changes in a Short Amount of Time
Sudden life changes, even “good” ones, can cause emotional turmoil. For example, moving to start college is exciting, but it also means leaving behind family and friends. It can be challenging and lonely to process grief if you don’t have familial or social support. Because life changes can yield complicated and difficult-to-manage emotions, these sudden shifts can instigate suicidal thinking.
Experiencing Bullying, Cyberbullying, or Harassment
Victims of bullying and harassment are between 2 and 9 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. And bullying, in person or online, is incredibly common. Nearly 25% of teens report experiencing repeated bullying and harassment. Taken together, this means that a considerable number of students are at higher risk for suicide because of how their peers treat them.
Relationship Issues or Abuse
People in, or who have survived, an abusive relationship are more likely to have suicidal thoughts. It is important to remember that abuse isn’t limited to physical violence. Verbal and emotional abuse can lead to the same outcomes. However, even when abusive behavior isn’t present, persistent problems in a relationship or a painful breakup can also trigger suicidal behavior because of the distress and grief these dynamics cause.
Traumatic Life Event
Because trauma can cause intense psychological harm, trauma survivors are at an increased risk for suicide even years after the traumatizing event. Trauma survivors have a lifelong risk of death by suicide, even if the experiences are years behind them. When left unaddressed, trauma survivors may develop untreated mental health conditions, including PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Trouble in School
Especially for college students, there is an incredible amount of pressure to excel academically. On top of that, students are navigating new systems, peer groups, and responsibilities. It is a lot to manage, and some students struggle to keep their grades up at times. The feeling that one is not living up to others’ standards may cause someone to feel hopeless and out of options.
Substance Abuse and Addiction
People who struggle with substance abuse or addiction may be turning to drugs and alcohol as a reprieve from underlying mental health issues or trauma. On the other hand, people with addictions may feel trapped by their condition with no hope of getting help. For these reasons and many others, people with substance use disorders are at a higher risk of suicide than the population as a whole.
Between student loans, limited work options, and increasing costs of living, many students struggle to make ends meet and find themselves in debt. Unfortunately — although this is a common situation for college students — when debt feels insurmountable, it can increase rates of suicidal thinking.
Members of ethnic, ability, and sexual minorities tend to report higher levels of suicidal ideation. Researchers suggest that minority individuals’ interactions with systemic discrimination, hate speech, and vulnerability to identity-based aggression may contribute to increased rates of suicidal thinking among minority groups.
The Warning Signs of Suicide
Friends and relatives of people who die by suicide often express that their death “came out of nowhere.” However, this isn’t usually the case. More often, subtle signs were there, but they didn’t know what to look for. Most people who die by suicide confide in someone before trying anything. But even if someone does not speak directly about wanting to end their life, changes in behavior or attitude can indicate that all is not well. Some changes — like reckless behavior — can be early signs, while others — like giving away prized possessions — should be treated as an emergency. Below are some common warning signs.
Keep an Eye Out For:
- Drastic mood swings or sudden changes in behavior. Mood swings work both ways. If someone goes from a deep depression to an unusually sunny disposition overnight, this can also be a warning sign.
- Increased substance use. Ramping up substance use may be a sign that someone is self-medicating, using drugs or alcohol as an escape from reality, looking to substances as a method of suicide, or using drugs to help bolster their courage for an attempt.
- Sleeping extremes. Sleep habits can be an indicator of someone’s mental health. For example, sudden insomnia may show increased stress or anxiety. On the other end of the spectrum, sleeping more than a person’s norm may be a symptom of depression or substance abuse. In either case, sudden changes in sleep habits can be a warning sign.
- Reckless or risky behavior. If someone has decided to take their own life, they may demonstrate less care for their health and well-being. People struggling with suicidal thoughts may do things like drive recklessly, practice unsafe sex, pick fights, or put themselves in other dangerous situations.
- Neglecting appearance or hygiene. This can show a few different changes in someone’s mental health. People with depression struggle to take care of their appearance and hygiene on a day-to-day basis. People considering suicide may consider these activities unimportant.
- Social isolation. Withdrawal from friends, family, and daily activities is a strong signal that things are not alright. Someone with suicidal thoughts may believe they are a burden on others or are withdrawing to spare others future pain.
- Depression. Research suggests that 60% of people who die by suicide had mood disorders including depression. This isn’t to say that everyone with depression will attempt suicide; rather, a sudden increase in depression symptoms or behavior should be a cause for concern.
Immediate Action Is Needed When:
- Obtaining a weapon or items to harm themselves. This often means an individual has already started making concrete plans to take their own life. In this situation, friends, family, or emergency services should remove access to weapons, drugs, or other methods of self-harm and seek professional intervention.
- Threatening to hurt themselves, or worse. Many people believe that threats of or engaging in self-harm are attention-seeking behavior, and that the person won’t follow through. Often though, this is not the case. Any hyperbolic threats of suicide should be taken seriously to ensure that proper care can be provided.
- Talking a lot about death or dying. If someone in your life suddenly becomes interested in death and dying, pay attention. Common outlets for this kind of talk are social media posts, quoting song lyrics, morbid hashtags, text conversations, and in-person interactions.
- Giving away prized possessions. Giving away possessions, making a will, or expressing funeral wishes is a strong sign that someone is preparing to attempt suicide. This behavior should be treated as an emergency.
How to Help if You Suspect Someone is Suicidal
It can be scary talking to someone else about their mental health. Many people worry that speaking directly to someone at risk of suicide will make things worse. Even if you don’t say all the right things, you can be a comforting and stabilizing presence for someone considering suicide just by showing them you’re in their corner. We’ve compiled proven advice from experts to help you navigate these challenging conversations.
What to Do:
- Listen and let them vent: Giving someone who is struggling room to express their feelings can help them process what they are going through. And by listening, you show that you are someone they can confide in if they begin having thoughts of suicide.
- Be sympathetic and show empathy: Try to imagine what they are going through and treat them the way you’d want to be treated in that situation. Demonstrating care and concern toward someone who is struggling can make a huge difference.
- Stay calm: Listen to what the person is telling you and take appropriate steps. Panicking can make it hard to think clearly and keep the person safe. By staying calm, you position yourself as someone who can help.
- Be direct, don’t dance around the issue, and ask them if they are considering suicide: This can be a hard question to ask, but it is one of the best things you can do for someone who is having suicidal thoughts. Speaking candidly about the possibility of a suicide attempt minimizes confusion and can help identify what resources might be useful.
- Be genuine in your concern: Be fully present with someone if they are talking to you about suicide. Put your phone away and practice active listening. Make yourself available to talk when you can. Most of all, if you offer to help them find professional support, follow through.
- Offer some hope: It can feel difficult to offer hope while being genuine and empathetic. However, there are some strategies that can help. For example, hearing stories about other people’s struggles and recovery has been shown to help people considering suicide. It may also be helpful to share how you’ve managed difficult times in your own life.
- Encourage the person to get help: It is easy to put off seeking help, even when the circumstances are life or death. Encourage your friend to contact a counselor or call a suicide hotline. You can even call a hotline on their behalf and act as an intermediary if they aren’t ready to speak to a stranger about their situation. Depending on the severity of the situation, do not try to negotiate with your friend about their safety. If you are concerned, contact emergency services.
- If they are truly suicidal, don’t leave them alone: If someone’s words or behavior suggest that they are in immediate danger of attempting suicide, make sure you or someone else trusted is with them at all times until you can get help. Remove weapons, drugs, or anything that can cause harm to the person in danger. Call emergency services.
- Come up with a plan of action: Work with the person to identify people they can rely on when they are struggling, how to access available services, and a system for checking in on their health. They shouldn’t have to work through their problems alone, but you shouldn’t be their only source of support. By building a foundation of care for someone who is struggling, you can protect their health and your own.
- Utilize campus resources: Research what services are available on campus. Most schools offer counseling resources to students. Some schools will perform welfare checks on students under certain conditions. If you aren’t sure what your options are on campus, reach out directly to someone in the health center or student services.
What NOT to Do…
- Argue or become angry: Becoming upset will likely make the person confiding in you defensive or shut down. In the long run, your friend may be less likely to come to you in the future.
- Try to “fix” anything: Although many people successfully move past periods of suicidal thinking, it isn’t necessarily a quick or easy process. As a college student, you don’t have the experience or resources to provide your friend with all the help they need. Do what you can to support them, but involve professionals in the process as soon as possible.
- Place blame on them or yourself: If someone is considering suicide, blame isn’t a useful concept. Instead, focus on listening, acknowledging their feelings, and offering help. If you need to talk to someone about feeling responsible for a friend’s health or any other emotions around the situation, consider reaching out to a suicide support hotline or counselor who can help you process these feelings.
- Lecture or rant: Logic or persuasion aren’t typically useful strategies to help someone who is feeling suicidal. Instead, you can be more helpful by listening, asking questions, and showing care.
- Promise not to tell: At some point, you may have to tell someone that your friend is considering suicide in order to get them appropriate care. Being honest about this from the beginning ensures that you won’t break their trust if you need to call in additional support. At the same time, you can assure them that your conversations are private and won’t be shared unless it becomes an emergency.
When to Act Quickly:
If you or someone in your life is in crisis and considering suicide, it is vital to take immediate action. Err on the side of caution and take proactive steps as soon as possible. Remove weapons, alcohol, drugs, or anything else that could be used in a suicide attempt, and do not leave the person alone.
How to get help:
- Call or text 988 to connect with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This service is available 24/7 to support people in crisis and those who care about them. Care provided through 988 is always free and confidential.
- Contact an identity-specific organization. Some people may feel more comfortable speaking with a support service that focuses on their own race, ethnic group, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Here are some nationwide resources that may be useful.
- Call emergency services. If someone is threatening to hurt themselves, calling 911 (in the U.S.) is an appropriate option. Emergency personnel can help get the at-risk person to the hospital for urgent intervention.
- Reach out to family or close friends. In addition to seeking professional help, reach out to trusted friends and family to create a support network for the struggling person.
10 Misconceptions About Suicide
Sadly, we are part of a culture that often fails to speak frankly about suicide — meaning there is a lot of misinformation out there. Many myths about suicide rely on unhelpful generalizations. Others work to downplay the severity of suicide threats. Debunking these myths is essential in broadening our conversations about suicide and keeping people safe. We’ve researched some of the most common misconceptions about suicide and provided the facts below.
Suicide and depression go hand in hand.
It is true that many people who die by suicide also struggled with depression. However, depression is by no means the only cause of suicide. Significant life changes, financial issues, family or relationship challenges, trauma, or medical worries are also associated with suicidal thoughts or actions.
If someone talks openly about suicide, they aren’t likely to do it.
Some people believe that if someone talks openly about death or dying, they are simply seeking attention. However, that usually isn’t the case. In fact, people who die from suicide often tell others about feeling hopeless or wanting to die. So if someone in your life is expressing suicidal feelings, it is essential to take them seriously. Ask direct questions such as, “Are you considering hurting yourself?” — and seek appropriate resources, depending on their response.
People who are suicidal can’t be helped.
On the contrary, people considering suicide can benefit immensely from therapeutic, medical, and social interventions. For someone in crisis, community support and access to resources can help them move forward. For people with mental or substance abuse illnesses, treatment for these conditions can alleviate suicidal thinking.
Marginalized populations aren’t more likely to consider suicide.
People who belong to a racial, ethnic, or sexual minority are more at risk of suicide than the general population. Many believe that minority groups face more mental health challenges generally because of structural and individual discrimination. However, current research has yet to establish the exact causes of elevated suicide rates in marginalized communities.
Suicide is not really an issue for college students.
Suicide is an issue for people of all ages and backgrounds. One survey shows that 2% of college students attempted suicide during 2017. Many college students leave home for the first time to attend college and don’t have the emotional and social support they are used to. Other students may struggle with the pressure to perform academically. To add to this, few opportunities exist for colleges to identify students who are struggling and to provide resources.
When suicidal people are doing better, the risk has passed.
This is part myth, part fact. It is rare for someone to be consistently at extreme risk of suicide. However, many people with underlying mental health issues that contributed to a suicide attempt will require ongoing care to manage their symptoms and keep themselves safe. But for some people, especially those who attempted suicide after a major life upheaval, the risk can wane once they’ve sought and secured resources to alleviate their emotional distress.
Suicide happens without warning.
Not all people who die by suicide talk openly about their plans. But their words and actions may contain warning signs, especially if there are sudden changes in behavior or attitude. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the warning signs we’ve discussed above, so you can help someone seek help before it is too late.
People who attempt suicide are seeking attention.
All suicide attempts should be treated as serious attempts; ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the behavior was attention-seeking or not. Someone tried to take their own life, and now they have a second chance. They deserve all the support and care available. Trying to decide whether someone was “serious” about their attempt is inappropriate and a waste of time.
Talking about suicide awareness will give young people ideas.
Some people point to the phenomena of suicide contagion as evidence that any conversation about suicide will cause harm. It is true that graphic descriptions of death by suicide can result in so-called “copycat suicides.” However, talking openly about suicide awareness and prevention has the opposite effect. By destigmatizing conversations about mental health, self-harm, and suicide, people are more likely to seek help — and everyone benefits from an increased awareness of warning signs.
Suicide is an indication of serious mental illness.
Certainly, some people who die by suicide have mental illnesses. But as we discussed above, there are other reasons people take their own lives. Traumatic events, grief, financial issues, relationship challenges, or sudden life changes can all contribute to someone with no history of mental illness attempting suicide.
Important Suicide Awareness & Prevention Resources
In this article, we’ve covered essential aspects of suicide prevention and awareness. However, suicide is a big topic, and there is always more to learn. If you need immediate resources or would like to continue your research, these sites are a great place to start.
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, this site should be your first stop. You can access 24/7 support via text, online chat, or phone. There is also an extensive resource library and a directory of health providers.
- Active Minds: This organization is dedicated to raising awareness about suicide prevention. You can learn about ways to start conversations on your campus and to help peers access care. The site also offers excellent articles on self-care and supporting others.
- Black College Students Addiction and Mental Health Support: As we’ve discussed, minority groups face unique challenges when it comes to mental health and suicide. This resource from Live Another Day is geared toward the needs and experiences of Black college students.
- Crisis Text Line: You can text the word HOME to 741741 any time to connect with a trained crisis counselor in a secure setting. Counselors are trained to help people who are considering suicide and their loved ones or to talk about underlying causes of suicidal behavior including anxiety, trauma, and substance abuse.
- Hope for the Day Resource Compass: This resource directory lets you search by zip code for a range of services that might help someone in a crisis. You’ll find mental health providers and hospitals alongside resources for substance abuse, food insecurity, and other types of assistance that can contribute to recovery.
- Jed Foundation: This organization works specifically with teens and young adults to build awareness about suicide and provide resources for students. The site provides resources to help yourself or someone else who may be considering suicide. Additionally, you can learn about programs you can implement on campus to raise awareness and destigmatize conversations about mental health and suicide.
- Mental Health is Health: This site offers self-assessment guides and actionable advice for people considering suicide or those who love them. If you’re supporting someone in crisis, you may appreciate the sample dialogues to guide your own conversations.
- NAMI Mental Health College Guide: This extensive resource from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) expands upon many of the topics we’ve covered in this guide. It also includes important information on self-advocacy and your legal rights.
- Office on Women’s Health: This government-sponsored mental health resource directory includes resources and support for women’s health and well-being. Here, women can access information on topics like domestic violence or sexual assault.
- Online Therapy Suicide Prevention Therapist Directory: Here, you can search for therapists who specialize in suicide prevention to help you find long-term care.
- SAVE Suicide Survivors’ Stories: Many people considering suicide benefit from hearing others’ stories of crisis and recovery. The Suicide Survivors’ Stories project from the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) compiles firsthand accounts from survivors as well as people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
- Semicolon Group Support Groups: This site hosts virtual support groups for suicide attempt survivors, people who have lost someone to suicide, and friends and family of people struggling with suicidal thoughts. Semicolon also offers individual therapy sessions with sliding-scale pricing.
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: You’ll have access to trainings on suicide awareness and prevention at this site, which also hosts an extensive online library of information for supporters, people in crisis, or researchers.
- Trevor Project: The Trevor Project works with LGBTQIA+ children and young adults to address factors such as discrimination, bullying, and healthcare access that contribute to increased rates of suicide in the queer community.
Interview with an Expert on Suicide and Mental Health
What is your background, and how did you come to work in suicide awareness education?
I come from a marketing and advertising background, but after losing multiple friends to suicide, I became passionate about mental health and outreach. I volunteered with Hope for The Day for a few years, and in 2021, I was brought on as the organization’s Director of Education.
What is Hope for The Day providing for students who are struggling with their mental health?
We are a non-profit focused on outreach. We work with people with lived experience to develop our programming. We do have clinical oversight to make sure we aren’t causing harm or wasting resources, but we try to position ourselves as peers of our target audience. This helps put everyone on equal footing.
A big part of our mission is filling in the gap between service providers and people in need. This includes directing people to medical services and counseling, and also things like transportation and food and other necessities that might help someone.
How can a student, parent, or professor support someone who is going through a difficult time, encourage them to seek help, and prevent them from feeling isolated or alone?
Really focus on listening. It’s hard, but practice waiting 10 seconds after you ask a really important question to make space for the person to gather their thoughts. My favorite advice is to ask questions that start with “what?” instead of “why?” A lot of times, people might not know why they are feeling something, but questions like “What can I do to support you?” can be more productive.
How can the support person best take care of themselves while supporting someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts or behaviors? Are there limits to what we can do for someone?
This comes up pretty often. You want to save the whole world, but you can only give so much without giving up on yourself. It is important to be really clear about what you can do. Everybody always wants to say, “call me anytime,” but it is better to set up realistic boundaries. This can mean working with them to make a list of people who can support them. You can be clear on when you are available. It’s also ok to ask if you are the best person for this role, or if someone is in a better position to help. Hotlines are also essential for a person supporting someone in crisis. It is totally ok to call and talk to a counselor, even if you aren’t the one at risk.
How can we work to reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health more broadly?
Validate the experiences of others. Be as open as possible about your experiences and what you know when it feels safe, share resources, help people be informed. That can go a long way. When people talk about mental health and suicide, people don’t think about how it is a systemic issue. It’s a lot of things that build on one another.
How can we work to integrate suicide prevention efforts into broader mental health initiatives on college campuses? What can we do to promote a culture of openness and compassion around mental health issues and suicide on college campuses?
There isn’t a single answer to this. The biggest thing is figuring out how it will work with your school’s culture. A lot of places have a lot of different priorities. For example, in some cases the Office of Student Development might be willing to start a program. In other cases, it might need to be more of a grassroots thing. Partner with professors to help build connections and be ready to work with a lot of different people to find the right way forward.
Look around and see what gaps need to be filled. You’ll be surprised by how much happens. It usually takes groups a couple of tries to find the right fit, so come at it from a couple different angles.
Is there anything I didn’t ask?
The first thing is that college campuses are missing empathy. Surveys show that people wish people cared more and took their problems more seriously. When I teach, I try to create a space of safety and empathy that is often missing. Give people the benefit of the doubt and know that we are all coming from different places. The most common thing I’m finding is that people don’t have patience and are set in their ways.
The second thing is that self-harm often gets lumped into conversations about suicide. It is important to talk about how these things are different. People are scared of what they don’t understand, so talking in detail lets these conversations happen in a less stigmatized way.