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College Student Suicides During the Pandemic: What Can Parents Do From Afar?

November 08, 2021

Four students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts have died (two by confirmed suicide and two still under investigation) since July, including one found dead Nov. 1 in his dorm room. The news has left the student body reeling and the college community calling for action.

Last week, a few hundred students gathered at the Quad on campus, dressed largely in black, to draw attention to the situation.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received national attention this fall after reports of two deaths by suicide and an attempted suicide since the semester began. At Dartmouth College, three first-year students died by suicide in the current academic year.

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 10 percent of adults surveyed in June 2020 had seriously considered suicide within the past month. Two years earlier, the share stood at about 4 percent.

The issue is particularly acute for young adults. Among 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed in 2020, the CDC said, about 25 percent had seriously considered suicide.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University reviewed data on 43,000 college students who sought treatment in fall 2020 at 137 counseling centers. Of them, 72 percent reported that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health. Sixty-eight percent said it had hurt their motivation or focus, and 67 percent said it led to feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Dr. Laura Saunders, Clinical Coordinator for Young Adult Services at Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living, said it can be particularly challenging for parents to help their college students deal with anxiety and depression, or process these types of losses, from a distance.

“Parents need to continue to let their children know that bad grades or bad moods or bad days are temporary,” Saunders said. “They need to reiterate to their children that they will get through it. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And most importantly, to please let someone else know if they are truly struggling with suicidal thoughts.”

Saunders said the ripple effects of the pandemic cannot be underestimated when it comes to young people’s mental health.

“Over the last 19 months young people have been rotating through remote, hybrid and in-person learning depending on the school district or college, and COVID surges wreaked havoc on the ability of youth to learn,” she said. “This also meant that structure and routine, which children thrive on, were completely unpredictable.

“All those gaps in knowledge can cause increased anxiety due to uncertainty as grade level expectations in school were mounting,” she continued. “The initial school adjustment period is over and now the workload is increasing. Kids that have underlying vulnerabilities like trauma, loss, anxiety, and depression are more likely to feel overwhelmed with stress and lead to worsening of symptoms.”

The significance of missing milestone events over the last 19 months is also key, she added. “High school- and college-age students are acutely aware of what they missed. This feeling of loss and change puts added pressure on them.”

In October, the federal Education Department sent higher education administrators a letter urging steps to prevent students from harming themselves. Suicide is a perennial concern on campuses. Now officials say the pandemic has cast a new spotlight on the stress and fear students endure.

“This year, attention to suicide and mental health carries heightened importance,” Suzanne B. Goldberg, acting assistant education secretary for civil rights, wrote in the letter. “The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a profound toll across the nation, including on the mental health of many students throughout the United States.”

Schools across the country have taken steps to address the need, from Virginia State University and others adding days set aside for students to decompress, to Dartmouth College, one of hundreds of schools partnering with a suicide prevention nonprofit to study its mental health policies and plan changes.