In a time when the words “college” and “alcohol” have become practically inseparable in some people’s minds, researchers have published a study suggesting that alcohol-related risk factors might not be college students’ biggest threat.
The study showed that on an observed annual basis, 3.37 students die in alcohol-related vehicular accidents out of every 100,000 students. Suicide, with a rate of 6.18 deaths out of every 100,000 students, topped the list of most common causes of college student deaths.
During the 2009-2010 academic year, the University of Virginia’s Director of Student Health James Turner asked 1,154 college institutions for their statistics regarding the causes of student mortality. Only 157 of those schools responded. This was the first study on college student mortality conducted since 1939.
“Everyone is having a hard time believing the study because alcohol was relatively low on the list,” Turner said.
The study is potentially misleading, critics say, because when alcohol-related vehicular accident deaths are combined with vehicular accident deaths not involving alcohol, the mortality rate is 6.88 out of every 100,000 students, which is higher than the suicide mortality rate.
“[It’s important that] we understand the data that’s being shared,” Senior Assistant Dean of Students at the College of William and Mary Donna Haygood-Jackson said. “I hope that people don’t jump on the bandwagon and think that that’s the actual correct information.”
The fact remains, however, that more college students die due to suicide than alcohol.
“[Colleges need to] refocus [their] attention on mental health issues,” Turner said.
Administrators at the College emphasized their efforts to constantly improve the school’s mental health facilities.
“I’d be upset if someone said their campus was successful [in regard to suicide prevention]” Haygood-Jackson said. “I think we should always strive to do better, whatever that is. You should never think everything is great … because lives are at stake.”
Director of the Counseling Center Warrenetta Mann echoed these sentiments. However, she said she was skeptical of the study and does not believe in change for change’s sake.
“Until we have more data, I don’t know if there are any implications [of the study] at this point,” Mann said. “Until we know what needs to be changed … it would be kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. It would really just be doing stuff to say we’re doing stuff.”
Student deaths due to suicide are a sensitive topic at the College. In 2010, three suicides occurred in the span of eight months.
“I wouldn’t say there is truth to the statement that we are a suicide school,” Vice President of Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06 said. “I’m not sure why that myth persists … Myths and stereotypes are difficult to break. William and Mary is not an outlier. That being said, one suicide is too many.”
When such incidents occur, the campus community is often left wondering how they could be prevented.
“It’s a preventable thing, but it isn’t completely preventable,” Mann said. “I don’t know if we’ve changed anything. We’ve always been very cautious and careful. I don’t think these particular incidents have pointed to anything needing to be changed.”
Even if the suicides in 2010 have not caused the College to change its mental health services, administrators are constantly working toward removing barriers that prevent students from seeking help.
“What I hope is that our students know about the resources on campus. What I fear is that there’s still a stigma,” Haygood-Jackson said.
Haygood-Jackson emphasized that the campus needs to focus on mental health issues.
“I think alcohol-related deaths aren’t a problem. I think alcohol absolutely is a problem,” Mann said. “Just because people aren’t dying from it, we shouldn’t see that as our bar.”
Turner said he suspects that the relatively low numbers of alcohol-related deaths could be due to the safety net of resources on college campuses, as well as the fact that college students are less likely to be driving at all, let alone while under the influence.
“Students who live on residential campuses can socialize relatively close to their school,” Turner said. “I’m not saying that alcohol’s not important at college campuses … but apparently it’s not rising to the level of actually killing them.”