The need for effective campus-based suicide prevention programmes at universities was highlighted in a study conducted by a team of researchers in SU's Department of Psychology and Psychiatry. The research team consisted of Dr Wylene Saal, Dr Elsie Breet, Prof Christine Lochner and Janine Roos, under the leadership of Prof Jason Bantjes.
Data collected from first-year students at SU and the University of Cape Town showed that 30,6% had experienced thoughts of suicide in the past 12 months, while 1,6% had made a suicide plan, and 2,4% had attempted suicide. These rates are markedly higher than those typically found in the country's general population.
Is there cause for concern?
There are no accurate data about the number of students in SA who complete suicide. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that deaths as a result of suicide among students are a cause for concern.
Students with suicidal thoughts and behaviours most frequently reported that these problems started when they were between 15 and 16 years of age. Students rarely started experiencing suicidal thoughts before the age of 11, but the reported cases of onset increased sharply up to age 18, after which there was a marked decline in onset. Less than 15% of students reported that their suicidal thoughts started after they were 18 years old. More than half (57,2%) of students who had experienced thoughts of suicide in the past 12 months transitioned to making a suicide plan, while 19,1% of those who had made a plan went on to attempt suicide.
The onset of suicidality was associated with having a mental health problem, highlighting the importance of promoting student mental health as an integral component of campus-based suicide prevention programmes.
Promoting student mental health
This research forms part of the World Health Organization (WHO) World Mental Health International College Student Initiative, an international network of experts working to promote the mental health of university students across the globe. This network was established in response to growing awareness of the high rates of psychological distress among university students internationally and the need for a coordinated global response. Studies show that as many as 31% of students report having suffered from a common mental disorder (most often depression, anxiety or attention difficulties) in the 12 months before the study.
Data from South Africa show that in the preceding 12 months, 20,8% of first-year students experienced clinically significant problems with anxiety, and 13,6% experienced problems with depression. More research is needed to ensure that suicide prevention strategies are evidence-based and focused on reaching the students most at risk. This work is particularly important given that mental health resources are scarce in South Africa, and that universities face considerable resource constraints.
Universities South Africa (USAF), an organisation representing the country's universities, has recognised the need for action in this area and initiated a national student mental health survey. This research is funded by the South African Medical Research Council and will be completed in 2020. It has the support of many vice-chancellors of South Africa's publicly funded universities and promises to provide data that will enable an evidence-based public health approach to promoting student mental health in the country.
* This article featured in the latest edition of Stellenbosch University (SU)'s multi-award winning publication Research at Stellenbosch University . Produced annually by SU's Division for Research Development (DRD), this flagship publication offers the national and international research community as well as other interested parties a comprehensive, yet accessible overview of innovative and interesting research being done at the institution.The theme of the edition is Research for Impact which is one of SU's core strategic themes from its Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019–2024.
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