Researchers work to reduce the risk of suicide among college students

| Judy Berthiaume

Existing research shows that engaging in non-suicidal self-injurious behavior is a strong risk factor for future suicide among college students.

But what specific behaviors or psychological features exist or change over time that make some — but not all — of the young adults who self-injure move toward suicidal thoughts or behaviors?

That’s the question an associate professor of psychology at UW-Eau Claire and a team of student researchers hope to answer through a new three-year research project.

“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, and NSSI tends to be more strongly associated with suicide than other known risk factors including depression and hopelessness,” said Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, a national leader in the field of suicide prevention. “Yet remarkably little is known about why and how NSSI is so robustly connected to suicide.”

With the help of a $300,000 federal grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Muehlenkamp and a team of student researchers will work to fill the knowledge gap around how NSSI leads to increased risk for suicide for some young adults.

Non-suicidal self-injury is the intentional destruction of body tissue without suicidal intent, typically including behaviors like cutting or burning the skin.

Studies find that up to 30 percent of college students report having engaged in NSSI, with a notable portion first doing so doing so during their college years, placing many young adults at elevated risk for suicide.

Through the new research project, Muehlenkamp aims to advance the field of suicide prevention, while also providing clinicians with specific information that will help them better and more quickly identify those young people who are moving toward suicide in their thoughts or actions.

The UW-Eau Claire research team will partner with faculty and student researchers at Western Kentucky University, with researchers from each school recruiting 200 students who report engaging in non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors.

The student participants will complete behavioral reaction-time tasks and self-report measures at the start of the study, and also at six-, 12- and 18-month intervals.

Student researchers will be involved in data collection over an 18-month period, as well as data analysis. They also will present their findings, and hopefully author papers for professional publications.

The goals of the research are to examine the features of non-suicidal self-injury that are uniquely associated with an increase in suicidal ideation, and to determine the behavioral/psychological mechanisms of non-suicidal self-injury that are uniquely associated with the occurrence of suicidal behaviors. 

“The results will have the potential to significantly impact clinical practice by identifying specific aspects of self-injury that change over time, allowing clinicians to better predict increased risks for suicide among their clients,” Muehlenkamp said. “These mechanisms and markers of suicide risk can be translated into assessment and intervention strategies.”

Many college students who self-injure report starting the behaviors as they were transitioning from high school to college, a stressful time for many young people, Muehlenkamp said, noting that college students’ same-age peers who are not going to college have an even greater risk for suicide.

“So college can provide some protections for young adults, but we still have a long way to go,” Muehlenkamp said.

The findings from the new research will be especially of value to clinicians who work directly with people who self-injure, Muehlenkamp said.

“If they know that certain changes may signal that their suicidal risk is increasing, they can catch that shift in behavior more easily and sooner,” Muehlenkamp said, noting that often changes in a client’s thinking or behavior is so subtle that it can be hard to detect if a clinician isn’t looking for it specifically. “If we can tell them that these two things are the strongest predictors of increased risk, that is something they will find very helpful.”

Her newest research advances Muehlenkamp’s extensive and ongoing work in the area of self-injury and suicide prevention.

“My work really is a study of hope,” Muehlenkamp said. “It’s a study of how people can overcome their struggles and triumph. We need to find ways to help get people through the dark places. This research does that by giving more resources to mental health providers, school counselors and others who work directly with young people who are struggling.

“There is the scientific piece, but it’s also something that people in the real world can use to directly help their struggling clients. It’s pretty cool if we can make a difference in the lives of individuals while also adding to the conversation at a much larger level.”

Muehlenkamp specializes in understanding and preventing suicidal behavior and non-suicidal self-injury in youth, including college students. Much of her work is focused on the psychological and sociocultural factors that may increase, or reduce, a person’s vulnerability for engaging in NSSI and/or suicidal behavior.

Since joining UW-Eau Claire’s faculty, she has established the Suicide Prevention and Research Collaborative, an initiative that addresses mental health needs on campus through suicide prevention education, training programs, advocacy and informational resources.

"Suicide is a concern on college campuses," Muehlenkamp said, noting that approximately 1,100 students are lost to suicide each year across the nation. "Providing avenues to reduce the risk of suicide in college students motivates me and reaffirms my passion for the topic.”

For more information, contact Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp at muehlejj@uwec.edu or 715-836-4626.          

Photo caption: Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, associate professor of psychology at UW-Eau Claire, is a national leader in the field of suicide prevention.