Suicide in College: The Tide Needs To Turn

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At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Lady Gaga sang a song entitled “Until It Happens to You.” The song shed light on the very real problem of rape on college campuses across America, a message made even more dramatic by the many female rape survivors appearing on the stage with the singer.

I respect any and all attempts to bring attention to this growing problem. There is another very real problem on college campuses that deserves similar attention: student suicide.  In the past year, 8% of students seriously considered suicide and 1.3% attempted to end their lives. Today, suicide is the leading cause of death in college students, second only to vehicle deaths.

Although we want to be shocked by this statistic, are we really? Consider the society in which these young adults grew up: one of relentless pressure to be perfect, popular, or “better” than others; one that is far more focused on performance than support, applauding strength rather than identifying and healing vulnerabilities. All this in a world rife with any number of traumas, ranging from physical or sexual abuse to emotional abuse, bullying, or emotional neglect.

As teenagers, many current college students spent untold hours each day on social media, following instagram and twitter, checking Facebook posts. To what end? So they could compare themselves to others and discover that they were not as pretty or skinny as the next girl, or conclude that they were a social pariah because they were not invited to this or that party?

Adolescents rarely walk away from social media sites feeling more positive about themselves.

And then for many, male and female alike, there is the ongoing stress of academic achievement. Excellent grades must be maintained in order to get that all-important scholarship, and therefore, matriculate at the equally important “good” school.

During these formative years, when healthy coping skills should be learned in the context of face to face supportive human relationships, it is not unusual for young people to instead depend on a skewed relationship with food, an addiction to self-harm, a dependence on drugs or alcohol, or fall victim to depression or anxiety.

Eventually, by hook or by crook, these high school graduates end up in college and things get … easier? Not likely; the additional stressors inherent to the world of higher education only exacerbate the previously established unhealthy coping strategy. Add that to an environment that is unfortunately synonymous with binge drinking and drug use, and the odds of suicide only escalate.

Now, more than ever parents need ongoing involvement with their children. There needs to be more talking, more time spent in the presence of one another, and less texting. From the time their children are babies, parents teach them by their example how to deal with pressure, stress and intense emotions. Babies, toddlers, children and then teens are exquisitely attuned to their parents’ feelings, reactions and behaviors–far more than they pay attention to their parents’ words. When we live our lives emotionally, spiritually, physically and in our relationships in a positive fashion, we have a much greater chance of instilling the same in the next generation.

Strategies such as healthy exercise, talking things out with a trusted friend, prayer, eating well, getting enough sleep, knowing when help is needed and where to go  to get it—each has value. The truth is, if a young person does not learn early on how to cope, he or she will turn to whatever is at hand, readily available, when facing difficult times in college.

As parents, we must do the best we can through the examples we set regarding how we live our lives, how we treat ourselves and others, how we accept ourselves in our shortcomings and strengths, how we love unconditionally, how we grow, how we feel, and how we heal from difficult experiences. When we help our kids find strength in knowing when to ask for help, when we cultivate the belief that we deserve it and all need it at times, we give them a better chance of turning to places of safety, strength and hope during a time of need, a time of stress, and the new frontier that college is for each of them.

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