Suicidal Behavior and Help Seeking among Diverse College Students

By Brownson, Chris; Becker, Martin Swanbrow et al. | Journal of College Counseling, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Suicidal Behavior and Help Seeking among Diverse College Students


Brownson, Chris, Becker, Martin Swanbrow, Shadick, Richard, Jaggars, Shanna S., Nitkin-Kaner, Yael, Journal of College Counseling


Suicidal and help-seeking behaviors of students of color remain a significant problem on college campuses. Self-reported suicidal experiences and help-seeking behavior of diverse students are examined on the basis of results from a national survey of college student mental health. The results suggest significant differences in the expression of suicidal thoughts and behavior across racial and ethnic groups and different experiences in their referral for, and utilization of, professional help.

Keywords: suicide, college student, help seeking

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Death by suicide remains a significant problem on college campuses. Suicide is the third most prevalent cause of death for youth between the ages of 18 and 24 years, following accidental injury and homicide, and is believed to be the second leading cause of death for college students (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2011; Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2004). In addition to death by suicide, suicidal thinking and behavior is a serious public health concern among college students. In fact, over 50% of college undergraduates have had some type of suicidal thinking in their lives, with 18% having seriously considered a suicide attempt (Drum, Brownson, Burton Denmark, & Smith, 2009).

Despite the increasing diversity in higher education (U.S. Department of Education, 2007c), there is a dearth of data about the interaction between racial/ethnic minorities and suicidal thoughts and behavior, help-seeking behavior, and best practices in suicide prevention and intervention (Cauce et al., 2002; Colucci & Martin, 2007; Goldston et al., 2008; Joe, Canetto, & Romer, 2008). Although some studies have focused on suicide prevalence in people of color, the research is often related to adults or adolescents as opposed to college students. For excellent reviews of the research about the cultural implications of suicide prevention, see Goldston et al. (2008) and Joe et al. (2008).

Rates of Suicidal Experiences for Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Ideation and Attempts

Discerning the prevalence of suicidal behaviors among students of color is confounded by multiple factors. First, racial and ethnic minority students do not self-disclose suicidal ideation at intake in university counseling centers as readily as their nonminority peers (Morrison & Downey, 2000). Second, articulating clear definitions of group membership among people of color can be challenging, because terms such as "Asian American" refer to a range of ethnicities with substantial cultural differences within the broader group (Howard-Pitney, LaFromboise, Basil, September, & Johnson, 1992; Nadal, 2004; Oquendo, Lizardi, Greenwald, Weissman, & Mann, 2004; Ungemack & Guarnaccia, 1998). Finally, published suicide rates for people of color could underestimate true rates of suicide because of biases in public records and decisions by coroners (Lau, Jernewall, Zane, & Myers, 2002; Rockett et al., 2010). Although it is difficult to determine the rates of suicidal experiences in racially and ethnically diverse populations, rates of suicidal ideation, attempts, and death appear to differ both between and within racial and ethnic groups (Choi, Rogers, & Werth, 2009; Chung, 2003; Joe et al., 2008; Nadal, 2004; Perez-Rodriguez, Baca-Garcia, Oquendo, & Blanco, 2008).

A search query of the CDC (2011) WISQARS (Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System) database revealed that self-harm among 18- to 24-year-olds accounted for 15.4% of nonfatal, violence-related injuries from 2001 to 2009. Goldston et al. (2008) reported a great deal of variability in suicide attempts by adolescents across racial and ethnic groups, with attempts highest among American Indian/Alaska Native female adolescents, followed by Latinas, American Indian/Alaska Native male adolescents, and Asian American/Pacific Islander female adolescents, and lowest among African American and White male adolescents. …

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