College suicide rates: Missing data could help to better understand ourselves

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for individuals ages 15 to 24, according to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.  In an attempt to address this notable issue, the first week of September was dubbed National Suicide Prevention Week by the American Association of Suicidology. This aligns with the start of the academic school year. While research to prevent suicide has received national support, the issue is seemingly not as closely observed on college campuses.  

In 2018, the Associated Press found that most universities do not track suicide rates; four years later, various colleges, including Florida International University, continue to not collect this information. While FIU’s Division of Academic and Student Affairs has adamantly advocated for mental health awareness and suicide prevention, primarily through the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), data to determine if the efforts are effective is nonexistent.  

When we asked why these figures are not disclosed, a representative from CAPS explained, “Generally speaking, this is not something universities commonly share publicly, out of respect to the impacted families.”

Although at first glance this sounds reasonable, CAPS discloses other sensitive data they collect. For example, the Student Health and Wellness Annual Report breaks down the various victimization classifications of student patients in the Victim Empowerment Program (VEP). This report details how many students attend the program for reasons like sexual crimes, relationship violence and stalking, among others. We assume this data has been collected through anonymous surveying, but if this is possible, why are anonymous surveys regarding suicide ideation among students not considered?  

CAPS representatives assert that they respect individuals’ privacy, but not all personal matters are kept private. It is also worth noting that other sensitive situations on campus (e.g. sexual assault crimes) are anonymously reported for purposes of data analysis. This data is annually compared, helping to determine if campus efforts are diminishing the problem. However, there is no way to be sure of this when it comes to suicide prevention.  

Jeremy Pettit, a psychology professor at FIU, acknowledged that there will likely not be enough suicide deaths at a single university to recognize a trend. He mentioned, “Suicide is what we call a low-base rate phenomenon, meaning even though every suicide is one too many, it’s something that happens rarely in the population.”  

Petit also noted, “What I think could be valuable but very, very challenging to pull off is to have a coordinated, centralized system across universities around the country…[have] all universities report [suicide data] to this central database.”  

Despite the fact that it is considered a low-base rate phenomenon, we seek to better understand how suicide impacts our community. College students are faced with stressors from every angle of their lives, including school, work and their homes. Understanding suicide ideation and suicide death rates could help us as a community to better destigmatize mental health and open up to those around us.