msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 8/18/2008 6:33:45 PM ET 2008-08-18T22:33:45

More than half of American college students have considered suicide at some points in their lives, a new survey reveals.

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The survey, results of which were presented Sunday at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Boston, adds to the growing body of evidence that the prevalence of suicidal thoughts is far more widespread among America’s college students than it is among the population in general. By contrast, only 15.3 percent of Americans overall have had such thoughts, the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative reported in February.

The survey, part of a wider-ranging continuing study on student suicidal behaviors being conducted by David Drum, a professor of education psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, questioned 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students at 70 U.S. institutions. The results raise the startling suggestion that suicidal thoughts could be a common experience on par with substance abuse, depression and eating disorders, Drum said.

The survey defined considering suicide as having at least one episode of suicidal thinking at some point. Slightly more than half of students said they fit that category, which is known as suicide ideation. When researchers asked about more serious episodes, 15 percent said they had “seriously considered” attempting suicide.

5 percent try to kill themselves
More than 5 percent of students said they had actually attempted suicide, which is the second-leading cause of death for college students, compared to its ranking of ninth among the U.S. population at large, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.

“Relief from emotional or physical pain” was the top reason students cited for suicidal thinking, followed by problems with romantic relationships. A generalized desire to end their lives was next, followed by problems with school or academics.

The study extrapolated that at an average college with 18,000 undergraduate students, 1,080 of them would seriously contemplate taking their lives in any year, numbers that pose troubling issues for college administrators.

The survey identified growing levels of distress among college students and diminishing resources to handle the consequences. They found that half of students who had had suicidal thoughts never sought counseling or treatment.

“We know only a quarter of suicide patients are our clients, which means 75 percent of them never come through our doors,” said Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas.

Drum and other researchers said colleges needed a new model, shifting the emphasis from narrowly focused treatments involving suicidal students and a small number of mental health professionals, to one that involved the entire campus in addressing student stresses.

“Suicide is a public mental health issue,” Brownson said. “We need to focus on prevention, building resilience in students and creating communities.”

By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. NBC affiliate KXAN of Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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