AP study: Most big public colleges don't track student suicides

AP study: Most big public colleges don't track student suicides

January 3rd, 2018 by Associated Press in Local Regional News

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2014 file photo, James Holleran, father of Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania freshman who took her own life, talks about his daughter while sitting next to a favorite photo of her at his home in Allendale, N.J. Nearly half of the largest U.S. public universities do not track suicides among their students, despite making investments in prevention at a time of surging demand for mental health services. After her 2014 suicide, one of her former teachers in New Jersey was surprised to learn learn many universities don't report suicide statistics. (April Saul/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File)

Photo by April Saul

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BOSTON — Nearly half of the largest U.S. public universities do not track suicides among their students, despite making investments in prevention at a time of surging demand for mental health services.

Tabulating student suicides comes with its own set of challenges and problems. But without that data, prevention advocates say, schools have no way to measure their success and can overlook trends that could offer insight to help them save lives.

"If you don't collect the data, you're doing half the job," said Gordon Smith, a former U.S. senator from Oregon who became a prevention advocate after his son, Garrett, took his life in 2003 while attending college. "We need information in mental health if we're actually going to be able to better tailor health and healing."

The Associated Press asked the 100 largest U.S. public universities for annual suicide statistics and found 46 now track suicides, including the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Of the 54 remaining schools, 43 said they don't track suicides, nine could provide only limited data and didn't answer questions about how consistently they tracked suicides, and two didn't provide statistics.

FILE - In this March 18, 2006 file photo, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., sits at his Pendleton, Ore., home behind a photo collage of his son, Garrett, who took his life in 2003. His suicide led to the creation of a federal grant, which has awarded $76 million for prevention programs to more than 230 colleges since 2005, on top of millions that institutions have spent on their own. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

FILE - In this March 18, 2006 file...

Photo by Don Ryan

In a statement Tuesday, a UT spokesperson said: "UT's Division of Student Life gathers what information it can about all student deaths as part of its overall effort to inform policy and educational programming."

The University of Alabama and the University of Georgia are among the schools that either don't have statistics or don't consistently collect them.

Other schools that don't track suicides include some of the nation's largest, including Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin, which have both dealt with student suicides in the recent past, according to news reports. There were at least two suicides at Arizona State in 2017. Health officials at Wisconsin said they're finalizing a database to track the causes of student deaths.

"We will create a formal model to accurately document all student deaths at UW-Madison," Dr. Agustina Marconi, an epidemiologist at the university, said in a statement. "Our findings and the standards we create will benefit other universities moving forward."

The issue has come to the fore as some schools report today's students are arriving on campus less prepared for the rigors of college. Many schools have increased spending on mental health services to counter what the American Psychological Association and other groups have called a mental health crisis on campuses.

Surveys have found increasing rates of anxiety and depression among college students, but some experts say the problem only appears to be worsening because students who might have stayed silent in the past are taking advantage of the increasing availability of help.

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

Adding to the skepticism is that young adults in college have been found to have lower suicide rates than their peers. But they are also at an age when disorders including schizophrenia and bipolar depression often start to develop.

Federal health officials have sought to encourage data collection as part of a grant program named after Smith's son that has awarded $76 million to more than 230 colleges since 2005. Schools have separately spent millions on their own, often adding programs that teach basic life skills, and training staff across campus to identify students in need.

The U.S. Department of Education asks colleges to collect data on student deaths but not suicides specifically, and a variety of factors can discourage schools from tracking it.

Often it's difficult to confirm the cause of death, and medical examiners don't always notify universities when a cause is determined. There are concerns about legal liability. Some families prefer to keep it private. Even schools that collect data differ on whether they count suicides that occur away from campus or during breaks.

And if the statistics become public, some schools fear it could damage their reputations.

"No school wants to be known as a school with multiple suicides. It's not good for business," said Nance Roy, chief clinical officer for the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with colleges and high schools on prevention.

Advocates in at least three states have pushed to require universities to collect suicide data — in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington — but without success so far.

After the 2014 suicide of freshman track star Madison Holleran at the University of Pennsylvania, one of her former teachers in her hometown of Allendale, N.J., was surprised to learn many universities don't report suicide statistics. He pushed for a law that would have required the state's public universities to collect and publicize annual numbers, but it never made it to a vote amid pushback from schools.

"He felt that it was something that the public had every right to know," said Pam Philipp, a New Jersey mental-health advocate who lobbied for the legislation along with Holleran's former teacher, Ed Modica, who died in 2017 at age 66.

A similar proposal by a state task force in Washington was sidelined amid budget woes last year, while lawmakers in Pennsylvania have yet to vote on recommendations to improve data collection.

National studies have found that suicide rates are on the rise in the United States, reaching 13 per 100,000 among all Americans and 12.5 among those ages 15 to 24. Much of the data on suicide comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does not specifically track college suicides.

The gap in information led Dr. James Turner to seek funding for a national reporting system for student deaths in 2009 when he was president of the American College Health Association, but the National Institutes of Health didn't see the value, he said, and it never happened.

"I became puzzled, because we as a society are so interested in the health of college students," said Turner, who is now retired from the University of Virginia. "Why is it we don't have a comprehensive way of approaching this?"

The National Institutes of Health declined to comment for this article.

A total of 27 schools provided statistics to the AP that they say were consistently tracked from 2007 through 2016, amounting to an overall suicide rate of about 4 per 100,000, although numbers from some universities were so low that experts including Roy at the Jed Foundation questioned their accuracy. The University of Arizona, for example, averaged more than 40,000 students per year over the decade but reported just three suicides, a rate of 0.7 per 100,000.

Earlier studies have found average rates between 6.5 and 7.5 per 100,000 among college students. Schools that provided data to the AP had rates ranging from 0.27 to 8. Because of the inconsistency in responses, The Associated Press is not publishing figures for colleges that provided data.

Schools that do track suicides, however, often use their data to refine prevention efforts.

After Clemson University started gathering more data in 2015, campus officials noticed an increased suicide rate among transfer students. The school is now redoubling efforts to connect those students with campus services.

Data at other universities have led officials to secure access to certain rooftops.

Among the oldest examples is at the University of Texas at Austin, where officials in the 1990s installed iron barriers atop a clock tower that had previously been closed after several student suicides. The 10-year rate on that campus is in line with averages found in earlier studies, its data show, and has decreased in the second half of the past decade, even as national rates increase.

But Chris Brownson, the counseling center director who analyzes the university's suicides, said it's hard to celebrate success when every new case brings so much pain.

"One death is one death too many," he said, "and that's why we come to work every day — to do the things that we do here to try to prevent any of those from happening."

Close to half of the nation's largest public universities do not track suicide deaths among their students, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. Through public records requests, the AP asked the 100 largest public universities in the U.S. for annual student suicide statistics over the past decade. Suicide rates for those that provided data ranged from 0.27 suicides per 100,000 students to 8 per 100,000, but because of the inconsistency in responses, the AP is not publishing figures for colleges that provided data.

Here is a look at the schools for which data were requested. Unless a branch campus is named, the line refers to a school system's main campus:

SCHOOLS THAT DON'T HAVE STATISTICS OR DON'T CONSISTENTLY COLLECT THEM

Arizona State University-Tempe

California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo

California State Polytechnic University-Pomona

California State University-Fullerton

California State University-Fresno

California State University-Los Angeles

California State University-Long Beach

California State University-Northridge

California State University-Sacramento

Central Michigan University

East Carolina University

Indiana University-Bloomington

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis

Iowa State University

Metropolitan State University of Denver

Middle Tennessee State University

Oklahoma State University

Old Dominion University

Purdue University

Rutgers University-New Brunswick

San Diego State University

San Jose State University

Texas A&M University

Texas Tech University

University of Alabama

University of Texas-San Antonio

University of Arkansas

University of Central Florida

University of Cincinnati

University of Colorado-Boulder

University of Georgia

University of Kentucky

University of Maryland-University College

University of Massachusetts-Amherst

University of Missouri-Columbia

University of Nevada-Las Vegas

University of New Mexico

University of Oklahoma-Norman

University of Oregon

University of South Florida

University of Wisconsin-Madison

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Weber State University

SCHOOLS THAT DID NOT PROVIDE STATISTICS

North Carolina State University at Raleigh

Temple University

SCHOOLS THAT PROVIDED LIMITED DATA BUT DID NOT ANSWER QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CONSISTENCY OF THEIR TRACKING

University of Utah

Florida Atlantic University

Florida International University

Kennesaw State University

Portland State University

University at Buffalo

Washington State University

San Francisco State University

The University of Texas at Arlington

SCHOOLS THAT NOW KEEP STATISTICS ON STUDENT SUICIDES

Auburn University

Colorado State University-Fort Collins

Florida State University

George Mason University

Georgia State University

Grand Valley State University

James Madison University

Kansas State University

Kent State University

Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College

Michigan State University

Northern Arizona University

Ohio State University

Ohio University

Oregon State University

Pennsylvania State University

Texas State University

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville

The University of Texas at El Paso

University of Arizona

University of California-Berkeley

University of California-Davis

University of California-Irvine

University of California-Los Angeles

University of California-San Diego

University of California-Santa Barbara

University of Florida

University of Houston

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Iowa

University of Kansas

University of Maryland-College Park

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

University of North Texas

University of South Carolina-Columbia

University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

University of Washington-Seattle Campus

Utah State University

Utah Valley University

Virginia Commonwealth University

Virginia Tech University

West Virginia University

Source: The Associated Press