Beyond the Numbers: University student suicide data leads to improved mental health resources on campus

Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 8:54pm

Engineering junior Anna Learis spends the majority of her time on the University of Michigan’s North Campus. She says learning in a less active environment than Central Campus, coupled with the difficulty of the engineering curriculum, can create a rather stressful environment for some students.

As a group leader for Wolverine Support Network, a participant in mental health monologues at Active Minds and a student who has spoken at local high schools about mental health, Learis spends a lot of her time advocating for improved mental health resources. One example of this is two years ago when Learis founded Mentality Magazine, the first mental health publication on any campus in the nation. Her experience in working with students who may be going through mental health issues has shown her the large need for on campus support systems.

Attention to these issues is part of what encouraged the Counseling and Psychological Services added a Wellness Center on North Campus to allow for better access to students who may feel isolated from mental health resources on Central Campus.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press surveyed the nation’s 100 largest public universities for their annual data on student suicides. Out of the four universities surveyed within the state of Michigan, the University was one of three collecting this data, along with Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University, while Central Michigan University either does not have data or does not regularly collect such statistics.

According to Sarah Daniels, Associate Dean of Students, current records of student suicide date back to approximately 2010, however, Daniels could not comment on whether or not records exist prior to this. Daniels explained that because the Dean of Students office does serve as the primary contact point for those affected by the death of a student, the data the University currently holds in relation to student suicide is a subset of information on all student deaths.

“We receive data in a number of different ways or receive information about the death of our students in a number of different ways and then we provide support and care and assistance,” Daniels said.

Specific ways the Dean of Students office obtains information may include notification from the Ann Arbor Police Department, a family member, or a report filed of an incident. Though this data isn’t necessarily analyzed by the University, it can be used to identify certain trends that may be occurring, such as an increase in student suicides within a certain school or college.

While this information is not released to the public from the University, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s report found that 24 percent of U-M students think about suicide, 11.3 percent have “seriously considered attempting suicide at least once in the last academic year” and 1.1 percent responded to having attempted suicide at least once.

Learis said identifying these trends can be helpful in providing resources to areas where they are lacking, as was done last year on North Campus.

“I think by having this data and seeing just how student suicides spread between majors and schools, that will definitely raise awareness of those schools within the University that aren’t having their needs met,” Learis said.

Public Health junior Omar Ilyas agreed with Learis, stating such data can help the University identify more specific patterns, such as certain times throughout the year in which student suicide rates may increase or decrease. Ilyas currently serves on the CAPS Student Advisory Board, working with administrators and psychologists to bridge the gap between student awareness and programs offered by CAPS.

“A huge part of being a student is you do go through mental health issues (while on) campus, and I think a large avenue for that is depression, and depression in itself has so many intricacies … suicide is one of them,” Ilyas said.

Out of respect for the loved ones of the affected student, the Dean of Students office does not finalize any information without confirmation from medical examiners and related officers.

“We are very mindful of not ascribing a cause of death before it is confirmed,” Daniels said. “It is not for us to decide whether something was or was not a suicide or whether it was or was not a certain cause of death.”

Learis noted, although this information is important in understanding certain trends, it does not provide a comprehensive look at mental health issues on campus. 

“I think a bigger issue with the data collection is for every suicide that actually happens, there are so many suicide attempts and those you can’t really track,” Learis said. “So even though we have suicide numbers, it’s hard to see the total trends.”

When moving forward in working to alleviate mental health issues, Daniels says the Dean of Students office continues to partner with organizations, such as those Learis and Ilyas are involved in, to advocate for an increase in student recognition of resources available on campus.

CAPS, for example, made a series of videos under the title “do something: Stop Student Suicide.” The purpose of these videos, Ilyas said, is to change the current dialogue around the topic that may be considered taboo or kept secret, and to help students understand what they can do in scenarios in which their own friends may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Additionally, each year, the Division of Student Life and the Association of Religious Counselors hosts a campus memorial to honor students who have passed away during the year.

“When we experience a death in our community, we’re working with our campus partners and saying ‘what can we do, what do we need to do proactively, what should we do reactively,’ ” Daniels said. “I think we’ll continue that work and continue to talk with each other within Student Life and across the campus to figure out how to improve … areas of intervention and education, and creative ways to influence students to talk about resources that are available.”

If you or someone you know is feeling depressed, suicidal or in need of mental health assistance, resources such as CAPSUHS or the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 are available.

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