A survey administered for the first time to students at Washington colleges shows they suffer from depression and emotional distress at roughly the same rate as students nationwide, with more than one in 10 saying they’ve had suicidal thoughts.
Nearly a third of Washington college students have experienced depression in the past year, and more than one in 10 have thought of suicide, according to a new survey designed to measure the mental health of the state’s college students.
It’s the first time students at Washington colleges have participated in a specific, widely used national survey on mental health, and it shows they suffer from depression and emotional distress at roughly the same rate as students nationwide.
The results come two weeks after Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. An investigation has not revealed a motive for the suicide. Hilinski was buried in California on Saturday, his funeral attended by some 800 mourners.
Warning signs of suicide
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide.
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
Source: National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Jennifer Stuber, a University of Washington associate professor of social work, called suicides among college students and others in that age group a “silent public health epidemic.” She is the co-founder of Forefront Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit started in 2013 at the UW.
She hopes a pair of bills being considered by the state Legislature will bring more money for mental-health counseling and suicide prevention to college campuses. “There’s a sense we’re not doing enough,” she said.
The national survey, called the Healthy Minds Study, involved 10,000 students at 13 two- and four-year universities — including the UW, WSU, several community colleges and some private schools.
Nearly four out of five college students who answered the survey reported that emotional distress impacts their academic performance, and about a third said they have suffered from depression.
Five percent said they had a plan to end their life.
“The numbers are shocking,” Stuber said, yet they’re also consistent with other mental-health studies that have surveyed depression and suicidal thoughts among the state’s young people, she said.
The late teens and early 20s are “a very challenging time of life — there’s a huge amount going on,” she said. These days, those challenges are often exacerbated by social media, where there are endless opportunities for young people to send thoughtlessly cruel messages to one another, she said.
Stuber said there is a lot that can be done to reach people who are considering suicide, from medication to therapy. “There’s a myth out there that if somebody’s going to kill themselves, there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
She said colleges and universities have often been reluctant to take on mental-health issues because their officials fear that “parents are going to think there’s something wrong with my school.”
The survey will serve as a baseline as colleges and universities plan their next steps and measure the impact of their work down the road, said Ellen Taylor, UW associate vice president for student life.
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One of the two bills being considered, HB 1737, would require public four-year colleges and universities to employ at least one full-time licensed mental-health counselor with experience working with active military members or military veterans. Suicide rates are highest among veterans, and many attend college after they are discharged from the military, Stuber said.
The other bill, HB 2513, would require the state Department of Health to hire a contractor to create a statewide resource for behavioral health and suicide prevention in college, begin funding those efforts through a grant program, award the first six grants to community and technical colleges, and submit annual progress reports to the Department of Health.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that five girls out of every 100,000 between the ages of 15 and 19 died by suicide in the United States. That figure, from 2015, was double the rate in 2007 and the highest in 40 years, according to the CDC.
In 2016, 256 people in King County ended their lives by suicide, according to the state Department of Health. Between 2012 and 2016, there were 5,412 deaths by suicide statewide. A breakdown by age was not immediately available.