Needs matter: Factors that increase suicide risk for college students

In his published research, Zhai found that food insecurity and depressive and anxiety symptoms are risk factors for suicide among college students.

Stream suicide awarenessRegardless of sociodemographic background, college students across the country struggle with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was one of the top nine leading causes of death for people in 2020.

Yusen Zhai, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Education and director of the UAB Community Counseling Clinic, emphasizes the importance of building awareness of suicide and ways to prevent suicide.

Leading suicide trends

In a recently published paper, Zhai and his co-author looked at trends and prevalence of suicide among college students in the United States during the COVID pandemic. The research found that students who struggle with food insecurity are at elevated risk for suicide.

UAB students and employees have access to Blazer Kitchen, an on-campus food bank. Located at 1613 11th Ave. South, its mission is to increase food security in the UAB community by providing healthy food, resources and referrals. Those in need can register online for a time slot to minimize wait time.

“Food insecurity refers to the inability or limited ability to acquire safe and adequate nutritious food in socially accepted ways,” Zhai said. “Food, as part of physiological needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is vital to survival and wellness for all humankind. College students who struggle with food insecurity may experience distress and are unwilling to seek help due to stigma, which can lead to mental health issues and elevated suicide risk.”  

Mental health conditions, such as depressive and anxiety symptoms, are also strongly predictive of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The findings underscore the urgent need for ongoing suicide prevention and targeted mental health care.  

Improving one’s health should be mindful, according to UAB experts. They recommend limiting sources and amount of news intake, setting boundaries for discussion topics, reading a book, getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness, and stretching to help with one’s mental health.

During the week of Oct. 17-21, UAB will be hosting its inaugural Wellness Week, an institution-wide initiative that highlights the university’s commitment to the health and well-being of the UAB family. Throughout the week, students, faculty and staff can attend events designed to help the UAB community prioritize rest, well-being, mindfulness, movement and good nutrition.

Being aware

Zhai says knowing the warning signs of suicide could help save lives.

“Become aware of and stay attentive to warning signs of suicide, such as prolonged sadness, loss of a loved one, termination of a relationship, and loss of financial security and employment,” Zhai said. “If you are experiencing mental distress and contemplating suicide, ask for help. There are resources to help you through tough situations beyond a friend or family member. Know whom to call when you are struggling.”

If someone is experiencing mental distress, one can help by offering to stay with them while calling the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Birmingham residents can also call a crisis line at 205-323-7777. 

Zhai says presence and support play a pivotal role.

The UAB community also can also find resources through the UAB CARES Suicide Prevention Initiative.

Looking ahead

Although there have been concerns over the pandemic’s impact on suicide among college students, the results from Zhai’s study revealed that the onset of the pandemic was associated with a reduction in suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

“The findings suggest that certain COVID-19 mitigation strategies might have protected college students from suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” Zhai said. “For example, governments and universities implemented various measures such as mental health services, relief for federal student loans, and academic accommodations and online instruction. It is also possible that some students might experience less everyday stress and gain more support from families and communities during stay-at-home periods.”  

Moving forward, Zhai says, society has learned a lot about mental health during the pandemic and emphasizes that ongoing suicide prevention efforts are still essential due to the long-lasting psychological and socioeconomic effects of the pandemic.