Sexual minority college freshmen are up to eight times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and behaviors, according to a new study.
A study of eight countries including the US and Australia found that nearly one third of first-year college students have thought about taking their own life, and rates were substantially higher in those who did not identify as heterosexual.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death globally among 15- to 29-year-olds, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The lead researcher on the study said the findings suggest that the first year of college could be a critical time to screen students for suicide risk, specifically among certain groups.
A World Health Organization study based on data from 14,000 first-year college students found sexual minorities have a four-to-eight-times higher risk for suicidal thoughts or behavior
‘It is important that future studies take into account a higher number of additional risk and protective factors to better differentiate which particular students in high-risk groups will go on and commit attempts and eventually suicide,’ author Philippe Mortier, a neuroscience researcher at Leuven University in Belgium, said.
One person in the world dies from suicide every 40 seconds, and the WHO predicts that number will double to one every 20 seconds by 2020.
Rates have increased by 60 percent worldwide in the last 45 years with the most rapid increase occurring among young people, who are at the highest risk in a third of all countries.
In the US, suicide is the leading cause of death among college students, with 1,000 deaths on campuses each year.
The study is based on responses from nearly 14,000 first-year college students at seven private and 12 public institutions in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the US collected by the WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project.
The lifetime prevalence of suicidal thinking or behaviors varied by country, ranging from 15 percent to almost 45 percent.
However, the age of first suicidal thoughts and behavior, their persistence and their associated risk factors were very similar among all late adolescents.
Overall 32.7 percent of the participants reported had thought about taking their own life, 17.5 percent had made plans for how they would do it, and 4.3 percent had made an actual attempt.
Three quarters of these students said they had their first suicidal thoughts by the age of 16.
More than half of those who had thought about committing suicide had gone on to make a plan.
Around 22 percent of those who made plans actually ended up attempting suicide.
Suicide attempts are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicides.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death globally among 15- to 29-year-olds.
Sexual minorities, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students had a four to eight-times higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors than other groups.
Heterosexual students who had experience with same-sex intercourse were at about three- to four-fold higher risk, while heterosexual students who had an attraction to the same-sex had about twice the risk.
Sexual orientation also tripled the likelihood that suicidal thoughts would escalate to plans or attempts.
Other risk factors such as having a religion other than Christianity, being female, having unmarried parents or at least one deceased parent and being age 20 or older doubled the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Mortier emphasized that while certain groups were at an increased risk, the differences were relatively modest.
‘Especially when we consider suicide attempts (with a lifetime prevalence of 4.3 percent), it is important to keep in mind that most students who struggle with sexual orientation issues will not develop serious suicidality,’ he said.