Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:
November 4, 2011 — Suicide outpaces alcohol as a cause of death among college students, according to the first study in more than 70 years to look at the major causes of college mortality in the United States.
The study, "Leading Causes of Mortality Among American College Students at Four-Year Institutions," was commissioned by Dr. James C. Turner, executive director of student health at the University of Virginia, when he was president of the American College Health Association. It was conducted by the association's research department and analyzed by Turner and U.Va. colleague Dr. Adrienne Keller, director of research at the National Social Norms Institute, part of U.Va.'s Elson Student Health Center.
Turner said the study, the first such research since 1939, also suggests that mortality rates of college students are much lower than the same-aged general population. He presented the findings at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2.
The findings are based on data from 157 schools, representing 1.36 million students ages 18 to 24, which responded to a survey sent to 1,150 institutions. In the survey, schools were asked for mortality rates and causes of death of students between the ages of 18 to 24 for the 2009-10 academic year.
"Most previous studies of college student mortality have not looked at colleges directly, but have used data extrapolated from the general population," Turner said.
The results seem to contradict conventional beliefs concerning the number of alcohol-related deaths, he said. Suicides accounted for 6.18 deaths per 100,000 students, while alcohol was a factor in 4.86 deaths per 100,000.
Overall, the No. 1 cause of death was vehicle accidents, at 6.88 deaths per 100,000, about half of them alcohol-related.
But findings also suggest that campuses provide much safer and more protective environments than previously recognized. When compared to the mortality of 18- to 24-year-olds in the general population, college student death rates are significantly lower for such causes as suicide, alcohol-related deaths and homicide.
"Hopefully this work will inspire further research to better understand what factors contribute to the protective environment on campuses," he said.
One area appears to be an exception. While the rate of suicide is half that for the general population, the rate has not changed from prior reports on college suicide since the late 1980s, suggesting that greater attention should be placed on student services for depression and other mental illnesses, he said.
Alcohol education and awareness programs are also needed, as alcohol abuse remains a critical public health problem on college campuses.
Since the sample of schools was not random, caution should be exercised in generalizing these findings to all students in higher education. The sample was very similar demographically to the entire U.S. college population, but was slightly over-representative of Caucasians, public schools and institutions in urban areas.
Citing the urgent need for a more formalized tracking and reporting method among all college campuses, Turner said he has secured a grant from the Centers for Disease Control to develop a surveillance network that will electronically link clinical statistics from health services nationally.
"By directly collecting epidemiologic statistics from major campus health services in the U.S., we can provide a much more accurate picture of health trends in higher education," he said.