Many Large Public Universities Don't Collect Data On Suicides, Report Finds

Jan 4, 2018
Originally published on January 4, 2018 1:53 pm

Forty-three of the largest public universities in the U.S. do not track student suicides, according to recent findings from The Associated Press, despite efforts to improve mental health on campus.

Advocates say that without this data, schools can't determine whether those initiatives are working. Since the 1990s, a rising number of college students have been seeking treatment for serious mental health problems, according to the American Psychological Association.

Forty-six public universities currently track suicides, 27 of which have consistently done so since 2007, says Collin Binkley, the AP reporter who conducted the survey of the 100 largest U.S. public universities. Nine schools could only provide limited data, and two didn't provide any information.

Some schools don't collect suicide data because it could damage their reputations, the AP reports. But most of the time, colleges and universities face challenges collecting suicide data, Binkley tells Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti. For example, it's often difficult to determine cause of death, and many families want to keep that information private, he says.

Universities "at least need to be trying because if you're not getting the data, you're not going to find out about important trends that could be used to help save lives," Binkley says. "The data can be really invaluable especially at a time when schools are really, really trying to improve on this issue."

By collecting the data, universities will be able to track suicides more closely and target specific groups that may need help, Binkley says. Clemson University recently discovered an increased suicide rate among transfer students, so it has been working to connect with those students before problems arise, he adds.

The number of students struggling with mental health problems continues to increase. In a 2014 national survey of college counseling centers, respondents reported that 52 percent of students had severe psychological problems, up from 44 percent in 2013. Forty-three percent of college counseling centers cited an increased number of students struggling with fallout from sexual assault in particular.

Binkley says data the AP received from universities reveals a suicide rate between 6.5 and 7.5 per 100,000 college students, though he notes some inconsistencies in the data. The national suicide rate is increasing, reaching 13 per 100,000 among all Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While studies have shown increasing rates of anxiety and depression among college students, some experts say the problem may appear to be worsening because more students are seeking help, the AP reports.

"It's unfortunate that people are characterizing this outcome as a crisis," Ben Locke, who runs a national mental-health network for colleges and leads the counseling center at Penn State, told the AP. "It's counterproductive because it's criticizing the exact people we've encouraged to come forward."

In 2016, California's Claremont Colleges discovered a mental health crisis after the deaths of two Harvey Mudd College students, and a suicide at neighbor Scripps College. Those private institutions are two of the five that make up the Claremont Colleges, which also include Pomona, Claremont McKenna and Pitzer. An outside report commissioned by Harvey Mudd revealed that heavy workloads prevented students from having enough time to sleep, shower or participate in extracurricular activities.

"We went into crisis mode. We had a list of 60 students who other students said were at risk of suicide or a severe mental breakdown," Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe told NPR in an interview last year. "We spent the rest of the semester trying to keep all our students safe."

There have been efforts in at least three states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington — to require universities to track suicides, according to the AP. There was a push to require the state's public universities to collect and publicize annual numbers after the 2014 suicide of University of Pennsylvania track star Madison Holleran. But backlash from schools kept it from being voted on.

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