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Study finds 1 in 5 college students reported thoughts of suicide

Preston Gannaway/New York Times

One in five college students reported thoughts of suicide in the past year, according to a new study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a finding the researchers say highlights an urgent need to help young people reduce the overwhelming stress that can come with campus life.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Depression & Anxiety, surveyed more than 67,000 college students at more than 100 colleges in the United States. It found that racial, sexual, and gender minorities are especially vulnerable, but that stress, mental health diagnoses, and risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts were common among all students.


One in four students reported being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder in the prior year, and one-fifth of students surveyed had thought about suicide, with 9 percent reporting having attempted suicide and nearly 20 percent reporting self-injury, the study found.

The study also found that sexual minorities, including transgender and bisexual students, were more likely to experience mental health disorders and suicidal thoughts. Approximately two-thirds of transgender students reported self-injury, and more than a third reported attempting suicide. The study found similar rates among bisexual students.

The beginning of the school year can be especially hard on students and their families, said the lead author of the paper, Cindy Liu.

Liu said it was surprising to see the disproportionate number of students who reported experiencing multiple traumatic incidents in college. This generation of students is pulled in many directions and expected to succeed in all of them, Liu said. And social media can make it seem like everyone else’s life is perfect.

“I think that there is pressure to achieve,” she said in an interview Thursday about her report.

One good thing, Liu said, is that there is greater awareness on college campuses today about mental health, and a lower stigma surrounding these problems.


Stressful events cannot be prevented and in some cases are normal, Liu said, but it can help to have a plan in place for how to handle the stress.

According to the study, the types of events that students felt were traumatic or difficult to handle included academics, career-related issues, death of a family member or friend, intimate or social relationships, finances, health problems, personal appearance, and difficulty sleeping.

The survey found that three out of four students reported having experienced at least one stressful life event in the past year. More than 20 percent reported experiencing six or more stressful life events. That stress was linked with mental health diagnoses, self-harm, and suicidality, the study found.

To perform the study, Liu and her colleagues analyzed results from a survey conducted in the spring of 2015 by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment. It asked a variety of questions related to depression and anxiety and treatment.

The study found that mental health symptoms are higher now than the last time the survey was taken, in 2009. Researchers also believe that mental health issues may be underreported for racial and ethnic minorities. Despite a higher likelihood of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, Asian students reported a lower rate of mental health diagnosis compared to white students, researchers found.

Sarah Lipson, a professor at Boston University who studies college student mental health, said the study builds on an ever-growing base of research about the high prevalence of mental health problems in college.


Research also shows that students today are also less resilient, meaning they are less equipped to deal with problems and failures, Lipson said. She said as a result, schools need to do more to help students succeed.

The college students of today were raised by a generation of parents who are very protective, Lipson said. They often sheltered their children from adversity and failure. Social media also plays a role, she said, though it is hard to pinpoint exactly how.

“There is a lot of responsibility that needs to fall to colleges and university campuses, and to higher education in this country, to think about how we build resilience because I think that’s an underlying, fundamental piece to the mental-health crisis we are seeing,” Lipson said.

MIT is one local school that has done much work lately on student mental health. Thirty-one percent of all students receive mental health services at least once during college, according to the school.

The school tries to make support available in a variety of settings so it is easier for students to access, the school said.

The school is specifically encouraging underrepresented students to use the resources, and has created new therapy groups for women of color and LGBTQ students of color. It also works with the Black Students’ Union and the Latino Cultural Center to raise awareness among those groups about mental health resources.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com.