Suicide in University Students


Suicide in University Students

Death is a taboo in our society. We avoid discussing this inevitable event at all costs. We are apprehensive even to say that someone has died: we use words such as “passed away”, or “gone on to the next life”.

Talking about death is extremely painful even for people who have lived a long and happy life. Therefore, the conversation about those who still had their whole lives ahead of them is even more distressing. Furthermore, imagine adding another taboo to the mix — a young person taking their life voluntarily.

Indeed, it is hard to be hit by the facts — suicide rate of young adults has tripled since the 1950’s. Nowadays, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 20 to 24-year-olds. The leading cause of death is accidental injury, however it is theorized that a large proportion of deaths labeled as “accidental” were in fact suicides.

Due to many medialized cases of suicide at university, the conversation about mental health issues at college campuses has finally commenced. Contemporary research has yielded an interesting and shocking view into the reasons why young students decide to take their lives.

What makes a university high in suicide risk?

Currently, there is no official ranking of universities by suicide rate. However, internet forums and Facebook discussions are filled with rumors of universities where the suicide rate is high — with most people citing top universities in the world such as MIT, Harvard, or universities in London. Although we are not really sure if these universities have a higher suicide rate than others, these gossiping students on Facebook are right in one aspect: many of these universities have been ranked as the most stressful in the world. As a matter of fact, one research has identified what are the exact factors that make a university stressful for students: The two risk factors that cause the most affliction in students are:

  1. Costs of tuition and living
  2. Competitiveness of the given university.
  3. Acceptance rate — the top 20 most stressful universities include universities with the lowest acceptance rate, such as Harvard or Yale
  4. The final factor which makes a university stressful is the choice of major — it appears that students in sciences, and especially engineering programs have the highest amount of stress.

What are the individual risk factors for young people?

Family and socioeconomic status
The well-being of parents and their socioeconomic status appears to be one of the strongest risk factors for suicide in young people. However, the risk factors differ for each parent. The largest distinction is that the father’s socioeconomic status is a stronger risk factor than the one of the mother. On the other hand, mother’s overall well-being and history of mental health problems were more related to suicide risk than that of the father. Some researchers imply that a weak attachment between mother and child is more critical for the child’s mental health well-being than that between a father and child.

Young men are three times more likely to commit suicide than young women.

History of mental illness
Young people with a history of mental illness, especially an untreated and/or unrecognized disorder are at a higher risk for suicide. This may partly explain the fact that males have a much higher prevalence of suicide. Asking for help or showing emotional anguish is often seen as weakness in men, which can lead to untreated mental illnesses.

Are university students more at risk for suicide?

Whether being a university student is a risk factor for suicide is still highly debated. There has been a rise of suicides at college campuses, and these instances are often highly medialized. Many people argue that the stress of university, especially the demands of many high-ranked universities often become unbearable for students. Stress levels among university students have been rising up to date, with 76 % of students feeling overwhelmed, and 22 % being so depressed that they sometimes could not function at all. However, in some studies, education has been shown to be a protective factor in suicide, and the suicide rate of college students is significantly lower than the rate in the general population.

What is the solution?

The availability of free mental health services at college campuses is crucial. Suicide is often the consequence of untreated mental health issues, which can be successfully treated with early intervention. Although most universities nowadays offer psychological help and counseling, the offices are often understaffed, with students having to wait weeks to book an appointment.
Fortunately, Erasmus University offers university psychologists and counsellors. However, the waiting list for an appointment is usually one or two weeks, and students with more serious problems are urged on the university website to contact their general practitioner rather than the university. This may be a wise suggestion in more severe mental health problems, however for some students it may be easier to seek help first at a familiar place that they are used to — their college campus. It is important to keep the discussion about mental health at universities open, and identify the most effective intervention a university can provide for their students.




1. American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2014. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2014.
2. The 50 Most Stressful Colleges. (2010, May 4). Retrieved from
3. Agerbo, E., Nordentoft, M., & Mortensen, P. B. (2002). Familial, psychiatric, and socioeconomic risk factors for suicide in young people: nested case-control study. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 325(7355), 74.


By Denisa Debrecká


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