Nearly half of college students who are U.S. military veterans have thought of suicide and 20 percent said they had planned to kill themselves—rates significantly higher than those of college students in general, according to a study presented by M. David Rudd, PhD, during APA's 2011 Annual Convention.

"These alarming numbers underscore the urgent need for universities to be adequately staffed and prepared to assist and treat student veterans," said Rudd, the study's lead author, who spoke during a symposium on the challenges of suicide prevention in the military.

In the study, researchers with the National Center for Veterans' Studies at the University of Utah looked at survey results gathered in 2011 from 525 veterans—415 men and 110 women, with an average age of 26. Ninety-eight percent had been deployed in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan and about 60 percent reported they had experienced combat. Most were Caucasian (77 percent), with the remainder Hispanic (12 percent), African-American (7 percent), Asian-American (3 percent) and Native American (1 percent). This ethnic background distribution is similar to that of all U.S. veterans, according to the paper.

The findings were startling:

  • 46 percent indicated suicidal thinking at some point during their lives.

  • 20 percent reported suicidal thoughts with a plan.

  • 10.4 percent reported thinking of suicide very often.

  • 7.7 percent reported a suicide attempt.

  • 3.8 percent reported a suicide attempt was either likely or very likely.

These rates are significantly higher than rates found in the American College Health Association's 2010 data on university students in general, which show 6 percent of college students reported seriously considering suicide and 1.3 percent reported a suicide attempt.

The survey data also indicated that the student veterans' suicide-related problems were comparable to or more severe than those of veterans seeking mental health services from VA medical centers.

The study authors said they were unaware of any data describing the preparedness of college and university counseling centers to meet these demands. They recommended expanding training to help counselors recognize and treat combat-related trauma, making training available not only to clinics and counseling centers but to all student service offices that have significant contact with students, and providing broad-based screening for student veterans as they transition to campus, such as during orientation.

—L. Bowen