Among the general population of young adults aged 18-24, homicide and suicide are, respectively, the second and third leading causes of death. While no studies currently compare homicide and suicide rates on campuses, the risk of homicide is generally lower, and many campus professionals dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health promotion often refer to suicide as the second leading cause of death among college students (Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2004). Available data suggests that suicide occurs at a rate between 6.5 and 7.5 per 100,000 among college students, approximately half the rate for nonstudent college-aged adults (Silverman et al., 1997; Drum et al., 2009).
Regarding suicidal thoughts, 15 percent of graduate and 18 percent of undergraduate students have seriously considered attempting suicide in their lifetimes. Between 40 and 50 percent of these same students report multiple episodes of serious suicidal thoughts, suggesting substantial prior experience with suicidal ideation (Drum et al., 2009).
Suicide and suicidal ideation, however, are only one part of a larger mental health problem on college and university campuses. Looking at associated mental health problems more broadly, 14.5 percent of students at one large university screened positive for depression (Golberstein et al., 2008). The American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment likewise finds that 60.5 percent of students "felt very sad", and 30.3 percent say they "felt so depressed that it was difficult to function" at least once in the prior 12 months (American College Health Association, 2011). Even though most campuses provide low- or no-cost mental health services to their students or can refer students to off-campus services, student survey data shows that many students who need help are not asking for it directly. Most students who report being depressed (i.e., screening positive for depression, self-reporting depression diagnoses or symptoms) are not in treatment (American College Health Association, 2008; Eisenberg et al., 2007b). In one survey, for example, only 36 percent of students who screened positive for depression or anxiety actually received some form of treatment (Eisenberg et al., 2007b). In fact, most students who die by suicide are not clients of the counseling center (Gallagher, 2006).
The high rates of alcohol use and heavy drinking on college and university campuses are also of concern due to the close association with suicidality and mental health problems. Survey data indicates that 43.9 percent of students report having 5 or more drinks in one sitting at least once during the two weeks prior to completing the survey and that around half that number also consume alcohol on three or more occasions per week. Students also reported that suicidal behavior was a consequence of drinking -- 4.0 percent seriously thought about suicide, and 1.2 percent "tried to commit suicide" (Core Institute, 2010).