Many colleges don’t track suicide rates, even as campus carry policies spread

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Many public universities don’t keep track of the more than 1,000 college student suicides that occur every year — a troubling reality as campus concealed carry policies spread throughout the country.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that only 43 of the 100 largest public universities included in its survey said they kept track of suicides. That data could help universities understand whether policies allowing students to carry concealed firearms on campus are associated with a rise in suicides, since experts say there isn’t enough research on the issue.

Although the Department of Education asks colleges to gather data on student deaths, it doesn’t require schools to track suicides specifically. According to the AP, it can be a challenge to confirm cause of death and schools worry about legal liability when families intend to keep the cause of death private. Some schools are also concerned that the data could harm a school’s reputation.

The lack of campus data is alarming, particularly because the national suicide rate by firearms is rising, a 2014 University of California, Davis study found. In 2012, nearly 64 percent of deaths from firearm violence were suicides, according to the report. A growing body of research also shows that when someone dies by suicide, an “outbreak” or “cluster” of suicides can result. This is especially true when a suicide receives prominent media coverage, glorifying the person’s death or painting it as inevitable.

College students are particularly vulnerable to the threat of suicide. A 2016 report by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, attributed to the major life transition of attending college are factors in the rise of suicides. Studies have found a high prevalence of clinical depression and anxiety in this group and, according to the report, college-aged men are particularly likely to use guns in their suicide attempts.

Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist at Duke University, told The Trace in 2016, “We know that college students are in this zone between adolescence and adulthood, with greatly increased risk factors for suicide including binge drinking and depression.”

Campus carry laws could be exacerbating the problem, experts say. Policies have been enacted in Colorado, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Idaho, Georgia, and Texas. Minnesota allows visitors, but not students, to carry concealed guns on campus. More than 23 states let colleges and universities make decisions about concealed guns on campus and 16 have banned guns altogether, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of these campus-carry states do not allow guns in dorms and five states — Utah, Idaho, Arkansas, Colorado, and Texas — don’t allow them in classrooms. Students who own guns could use them in their own suicides or students in states that allow guns in dorms could find a roommate’s gun and use it against themselves.

“If we had a shift in the number of people who attempt to end their life with a firearm — who chose other means — we would very greatly reduce our suicide rate,” Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Washington Post in 2016.

Most public discourse surrounding guns in schools tends to center around mass shootings, but other incidents of violence, including suicides, are much more likely to occur. According to a 2016 John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report on campus carry laws and policy implications, only 2.4 percent of shootings and undesirable discharges on campuses involved a shooter on a rampage. Forty-five percent were interpersonal disputes that escalated into violence, 12 percent were premeditated acts against one person, and 12 percent were suicides. Nine percent were unintentional shootings.

Of course, there are other laws that could affect student suicides rates besides campus carry policies. Research has found that in states where guns are prevalent, rates of suicide are higher. The list of states with high rates of gun ownership looks very similar to the list of states with campus carry laws, including Texas, Idaho, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Arkansas. Many of those states with higher gun ownership, such as Kansas, Wyoming, and Alaska, have fewer gun restrictions in general.

Greater prevalence of suicide has been tied to homes where guns are present, no matter how they are stored, and suicides are often impulsive acts set off by acute stressors, such as job losses or changes in romantic relationships, research shows. According to a New England Journal of Medicine article, 24 percent of people who made near lethal attempts chose to die by suicide less than five minutes before they attempted it and 70 percent took less than an hour to attempt suicide. But 70 percent of those who attempted suicide had no further attempts. But when they have access to guns, the chances they will die by suicide are far higher.