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University of Iowa News Release

March 28, 2005

Westefeld Study Suggests Suicide Still A Problem On College Campuses

A small percentage of college students across the country continue to seriously contemplate, attempt or commit suicide, but a new study headed by a professor in the University of Iowa College of Education suggests the numbers may be inching up.

"Perceptions Concerning College Student Suicide: Data from Four Universities," by University of Iowa counseling psychology professor John S. Westefeld, Ph.D., and five coauthors, surveyed 1,865 students at four large universities in the upper Midwest, the Ohio Valley, the South Atlantic and South Central parts of the United States. The study has been accepted for publication later this year in "Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior," the official journal of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS).

According to a study by the AAS, 29,350 Americans ended their own lives in 2000, making suicide the ninth leading cause of death overall in the country. Nearly 13.6 percent of those suicides were committed by people under the age of 25. Additionally, suicide accounted for 13 percent of all deaths for people between the ages of 15 and 24.

The 2000 American College Health Association (ACHA) Assessment, which focused on suicidal behavior among college students, found that 9.5 percent of their sample seriously considered suicide in the past year and 1.5 percent had attempted suicide.

Primarily, Westefeld's survey examined the degree to which students believed suicide is a problem in general for college students, and for students on their particular campuses; their own experience with suicide; and their awareness of campus resources that can help students cope with issues typically cited as factors that spur young people to consider taking their own lives.

On the question of whether suicide is a problem in general on college campuses, 7 percent of respondents strongly agreed, 35 percent agreed, 39 percent were neutral, 17 percent disagreed and 2 percent strongly disagreed. But students were far less inclined to believe that suicide was a problem on their particular campus. Only 2 percent strongly agreed that this was the case, 8 percent agreed, 50 percent were neutral, 30 percent disagreed and 10 percent strongly disagreed. Thus, while 42 percent thought suicide was a problem generally, only 10 percent believed this about their own campus.

"In terms of student perceptions about suicide being a problem for college students, 42 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that is was a problem on the nation's college campuses," Westefeld writes. "When asked if suicide was a problem on their campus, only 10 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that it was a problem. Apparently, at least for this sample, suicide is viewed as a generic problem but not a local problem."

Asked about their own experiences with suicide while in college, either personally or in knowing someone with suicidal behavior, 40 percent of the respondents said they had known someone who had attempted suicide, 28 percent knew someone who had committed suicide, 24 percent had themselves considered suicide, 9 percent had made a suicidal threat and 5 percent had themselves attempted suicide.

It's possible the numbers of students who have considered or attempted suicide are up, based on data from earlier studies.

In the Westefeld study, 24 percent of the respondents said they'd thought about attempting suicide while in college, while a 2001 study put the number at 8.5 percent and the 2000 ACHA study put it at 9.5 percent. Westefeld also found that 5 percent of the respondents had attempted suicide while in college, while two earlier studies put that number at 1 and 1.5 percent of respondents.

"This is one of the most significant findings of this study," Westefeld wrote in his conclusion. "However, it may also be the case that what is occurring is that more students are reporting attempts."

The major motivations cited by students who had attempted suicide included depression, trouble with relationships, stress related to school, hopelessness, family problems, anxiety, financial stress and social isolation.

Slightly more than a quarter of the respondents -- 26 percent -- indicated that they were aware of campus resources to help students struggling with suicidal thoughts or tendencies. But not everyone indicated a willingness to take advantage of those resources.

Asked about their own treatment history, 9 percent of the students surveyed reported that they sought treatment for depression/suicidality and found it helpful, 3 percent were treated but did not find it helpful and 77 percent said they hadn't sought treatment but would if they felt they needed it. On the other hand, 12 percent of the students said they had never been treated and would never seek treatment even if they needed it.

There was no significant difference between men and women in terms of suicidal thoughts and behavior.

"It appears that suicide clearly remains a major issue at colleges and universities," Westefeld wrote. "Student affairs personnel and college mental health professionals need to be vigilant about the issue of college student suicide. Psychologists and psychiatrists working on college campuses need to continue to search for ways to help students mitigate stress, relationships issues, family problems, depression, hopelessness, anxiety and financial stress, all of which appear to relate to suicidality based on the results of this study."

Westefeld noted that the recent passage by Congress of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act last fall could go a long way toward identifying and providing the resources and activities that will help college students consider alternatives to suicide. The act appropriates $82 million over three years to address the issue of college suicide and related issues.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Media: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007, stephen-pradarelli@uiowa.edu.