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Factors that Increase Suicide Risks in College Students

By Brianna Hoge
UAB News

Regardless of sociodemographic background, college students across the country struggle with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was one of the top nine leading causes of death for people in 2020.

Yusen Zhai, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Education and director of the UAB Community Counseling Clinic, emphasizes the importance of building awareness of suicide and ways to prevent suicide.

In a recently published paper, Zhai and his co-author looked at trends and prevalence of suicide among college students in the United States during the COVID pandemic. The research found that students who struggle with food insecurity are at elevated risk for suicide.

“Food insecurity refers to the inability or limited ability to acquire safe and adequate nutritious food in socially accepted ways,” Zhai said. “Food, as part of physiological needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is vital to survival and wellness for all humankind. College students who struggle with food insecurity may experience distress and are unwilling to seek help due to stigma, which can lead to mental health issues and elevated suicide risk.”

Mental health conditions, such as depressive and anxiety symptoms, are also strongly predictive of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The findings underscore the urgent need for ongoing suicide prevention and targeted mental health care.

Zhai says knowing the warning signs of suicide could help save lives.

“Become aware of and stay attentive to warning signs of suicide, such as prolonged sadness, loss of a loved one, termination of a relationship, and loss of financial security and employment,” Zhai said. “If you are experiencing mental distress and contemplating suicide, ask for help. There are resources to help you through tough situations beyond a friend or family member. Know whom to call when you are struggling.”

Although there have been concerns over the pandemic’s impact on suicide among college students, the results from Zhai’s study revealed that the onset of the pandemic was associated with a reduction in suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

“The findings suggest that certain COVID-19 mitigation strategies might have protected college students from suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” Zhai said. “For example, governments and universities implemented various measures such as mental health services, relief for federal student loans, and academic accommodations and online instruction. It is also possible that some students might experience less everyday stress and gain more support from families and communities during stay-at-home periods.”

If someone is experiencing mental distress, one can help by offering to stay with them while calling the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Birmingham residents can also call a crisis line at 205-323-7777.