News

-Crisis on Campuses – Alcohol Overdose- Suicide- Depression and Anxiety

BY Louise Stanger ED.d, LCSW, CDWF, CIP  (former faculty School of Social Work San Diego State University and Director of Alcohol and Other Drug Services University Of San Diego.)

The other morning, I received a frantic phone call. A young college student who after night of smoking pot and drinking alcohol did not want to live. 

God must have been on our side as I was able to call 911 and the police were able to get there in time and help this young person get the immediate help they need.

Every year families brimming with hope pride and joy send their sons and daughters off to college knowing this is their opportunity to start on the path of success. And every year we read the tragic headlines of death from alcohol and other drug overdoses, as well as suicide.

This academic year has started off at earthquake speed with 9 deaths at the University of Southern California, 3 by suicide the other causes of death are undetermined, as families did not want to reveal the cause of death. In an average year at USC with 47,000 students there are 4-15 deaths reported. Last year there were 6.

Like the unstoppable California wildfires in the past month, at least 4 young men have died in circumstances related to college fraternities as reported by Hank Nuwer, a USA reporter.

On Oct 19, 17-year-old John Jack Shoenig died outside a fraternity house at Penn State. Oct 24 was the last day anyone saw Student Antonio Tsialas alive. He was found in a gorge. On Nov 12 a San Diego State University Freshman Dylan Hernandez was found dead after falling from a top bunk. He had reportedly attended a fraternity party the night before, and at Washington State University police are investigating the death of fraternity member Samuel Martinez 19 at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

What we know is that every year an estimated 2,000 students die from alcohol-related injuries. This works out as nearly one death for every two colleges in America. Incredibly, another 599,000 are unintentionally injured due to the effects of alcohol. Out of 4,140 colleges in the U.S., both public and private, this factors out to 145 injuries for every single campus.

  1. Freshmen account for more than one-third of college student deaths: When it comes to alcohol-related deaths, the first year of college is easily the most dangerous. A USA Today study found that although freshmen account for only about 24% of the total population of college students, they make up much more than their share of the number of deaths. For example, they accounted for 40% of undergraduate suicides, 47% of undergrad deaths on campus, and half of deaths from falls out of windows and off rooftops. Of these deaths, one out of five was found to have been drinking.
  1. Anxiety in college is very common. According to the American College Health Association Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment, 63% of college students in the US felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. In the same survey, 23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety in the past year.
  2. The sharpest increase in anxiety occurs during the initial transition to college. A recent study demonstrated that psychological distress among college students — that is, their levels of anxiety, depression, and stress — rises steadily during the first semester of college and remains elevated throughout the second semester. This suggests that the first year of college is an especially high-risk time for the onset or worsening of anxiety.
  1. It’s caused by many factors.Many factors contribute to the heightened risk for anxiety among college students. For example, sleep disruption, caused by drinking excess, caffeine and pulling all-nighters is associated with increased anxiety among college students. Change in daily routines, lack of exercise, having newfound freedom of not going to school every day, and figuring out how to manage their time.  Loneliness, not knowing anyone and the pressure to make new friends to meet new folks also predicts mental health problems, including anxiety. Academic pressures, such as like school stress, figuring out study schedules, no one asking if you have done your homework, and disengagement from studies are also associated with psychological distress among college students. These young people are often away from home and friends for the first time. They’re living with strangers, far from their support systems, and working under intense pressure—with disrupted sleeping, eating, and exercise patterns. You could hardly design a more stressful atmosphere, particularly when depression or other mental health issues enter the picture.

It may be on the rise. College students today appear to be more stressed and anxious than ever before. The research of Twenge, Martin and Campell https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29355336

shows a strong association between time spent on electronic communication (social media, smartphones) and reduced well-being among adolescents. Electronic communication could interfere with adjustment to college if it replaces healthy coping behaviors like exercise, face-to-face social interactions, and studying.

With all the pressure, the separation from family and familiar surroundings, and the lack of sleep college students are faced with, depression is also a very common ailment on campus. Over 53% of college students will experience some form of depression, yet less than 1/3 of them seek help.

The answer for many is to drown their sorrows in alcohol. A study found as many as 1.5% of students tried to commit suicide because of drinking and/or drug use. In a recent study published in Depression and Anxiety of more than 67,000 college students from more than 100 institutions, one in five students have had thoughts of suicide, with 9% making an attempt and nearly 20% reporting self-injury.2 One in four students reported being diagnosed with a mental illness.2

Suicide, defined as death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with the intent to die as a result of the behavior, is the second most common cause of death among college students.

In the wake of the recent deaths, let’s look at a few statistics about student suicide on college and university campuses throughout the U.S.

  • Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students.
  • 1,000 students take their lives each year on college campuses.
  • More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts and 10% think about seriously considering attempting suicide.’
  • 80-90% of college students who die by suicide were not receiving help from college counseling centers. 

As the statistics show, suicide continues to be a prevalent issue on our campuses and the demand for mental health services is increasing.

Risk Factors

There are many risk factors that may help determine if a person is at a high risk for attempting to end their life by suicide. It is important to understand the difference between risk factors and warning signs.

While risk factors may indicate that a person is at a high risk to experience suicidal behavior, this designation does not speak to the immediate threat of suicidal behavior, which is where warning signs come into play. Statistics show that those who have previously attempted suicide are 38 times more likely to die by suicide than those who have not attempted suicide.

Those with a history of alcohol abuse are six times more likely to die by suicide than those without such a history. In addition, people with mood disorders and access to fatal means are at a higher risk of suicide than those without.

The following are among the most common risk factors, though there are more:

  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • Family history of suicide, abuse, and/or mental disorders
  • Active alcohol and/or substance abuse
  • Family history of alcohol and/or substance abuse
  • Underlying psychiatric and/or mood disorder
  • Experienced traumatic life event
  • Access to lethal weapons and/or substances
  • Social isolation and/or alienation
  • Medical conditions such as a chronic ailment or terminal illness that could worsen depression
  • Conflict over sexual identity and/or other personal relationships that may worsen feelings of shame and isolation’

Some warning signs are

  • Posting online about statements of hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness. (“Life is useless.” “Everyone would be better off without me.” “It doesn’t matter.” “I won’t be around much longer anyway.”)
  • Poor hygiene
  • Preoccupation with death (in music, literature, or drawings, letters)
  • Sudden happy or calmer state
  • Withdrawal or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Poor academic performance
  • Unusual visiting or calling people (to say their goodbyes)
  • Giving away possessions or getting affairs in order
  • Self-destructive behavior (alcohol/drug misuse, self-injury or mutilation, promiscuity)
  • Risk-taking behavior (reckless driving, carelessness around bridges, cliffs, or balconies, or walking in front of traffic)
  • Having several accidents resulting in injury
  • Obsession with guns or knives

If you are worried directly about a student with suicide ideation, do not hesitate to call for help. Here is a robust list of resources: https://www.affordablecollegesonline.org/college-resource-center/college-suicide-prevention/ 

EVERYONE CAN BE PART OF THE SOLUTION

Whether you are a fellow college classmate, a parent or are a college administrator everyone can help mitigate the effects of substance misuse, anxiety and depression.

College Peers

If you are a friend or roommate and you see something out of the ordinary do not be afraid to tell your resident advisor or talk to your friend. Knowing someone notices and cares is half the battle. Putting together a toolbox for Partying Without Regrets is another. http://recoverycampus.com/party-without-regrets/

Learn your college resources. Most Freshman Orientation programs will teach this.

Parents and Other family Members and Peers

Stay Involved

Attend college-based events to the extent possible. Join parent groups. Learn about the mental health resources on campus.

Keep in Touch

Freshmen especially need to know that the family cares about them and their well-being. Use whatever means they are most comfortable with to talk often—text, phone, Facebook chat, or Facetime.  On average a college freshman girl may reach out to their mom at least 7 times a day. The average freshmen boy reaches out much less. Boys like food or food cards sent; girls prefer help with room décor.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

If you sense a problem is bothering your college student, don’t react abnormally. Slow down and above all, listen. Ask open ended questions, listen carefully to their tone of voice and their willingness to share. Avoid criticism, judgement, harsh words or impatience.

Promote Self-Care

Encourage your young adult to make time to take care of themselves, whether that means reading a good book, watching a movie or taking a daily nap. Send health care packages to your college student.

Share Your Struggles

Being Open and VUNERABLE goes a long way Share some of the struggles you had when you were younger. Saying “I’ve been there” can be the difference between your young adult feeling heard and seen and feeling invisible. They may act like they don’t care about what you say or show no interest, but they will most likely hear it anyway.

Colleges Must Be Visible, Vocal and Visionary

According Dr. John Donavan Clapp former head of the US Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol Other Drugs Violence and Professor of Social work and Preventative Medicine USC School of Social Work,  “Colleges and universities really need to understand that these issues are a threat to their larger mission of education and knowledge generation. There are no simple fixes. These are difficult problems and smart and sustained efforts are going to be the only way to find a healthy way forward.  This means engaging experts, student leaders, alumni, and faculty with a forward-thinking perspective and a clear understanding of both the causes and possible solutions to these problems.”

Likewise, my research has revealed in recent years, most colleges have expanded their mental health counseling services, and suicide anxiety and depression awareness programs, including training dormitory resident assistants. Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, has even trained its dorm custodians to be on the lookout for troubled students. Many campuses have also increased their stress reduction programs to help students better manage and reduce stress, so it does not become unbearable.

Lastly, Colleges Must take hard look at fraternity and sorority life, closing and ways to reduce risk with alcohol and other drug related incidents.

About the author. Dr. Louise spent over 30 years on a college campus as a Social Work Faculty at San Diego State University and Director of Alcohol and Other Drug Services at The University of San Diego. She was one of the original Higher Education Associates for The US Dept of Higher Education Alcohol and Other Drug Violence.

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