UC Davis has seen 20 deaths by suicide over the past decade, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story

UC Davis has seen 20 deaths by suicide over the past decade, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story

Photo Credits: SYDNEE RODRIGUEZ / AGGIE

A look at the previous decade’s worth of suicide statistics at each of the 10 UC campuses

This article is the second in a multi-part investigation by The California Aggie looking at suicide statistics in the UC system. As these statistics are not maintained by the UC Office of the President, The Aggie has compiled the previous decade’s worth of suicide statistics at each of the 10 UC campuses through public information requests.

Leading mental health experts say that collecting suicide data can be a critical tool in prevention efforts — UC Davis’ Executive Director of Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) Margaret Walter agrees.

“Any sized college or institution of higher education would want to look at public health issues such as suicide with an eye for prevention opportunities or improving response,” Walter said when asked why a public university such as UC Davis would collect suicide data.

Yet the UC does not require its campuses to collect suicide-related data, nor does there exist a “systemwide UC policy or standard on collecting suicide data,” according to Andrew Gordon, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President (UCOP).

“There is no systemwide definiton of suicide nor policy thresholds at which suicides must be reported by a campus,” Gordon said via email. “Though campus counseling centers typically do collect this data and share with campus leadership locally.”

In order to gain insight into student suicides on UC campuses that UCOP was not able to provide, The California Aggie submitted 20 California Public Records Act requests for the previous decade’s worth of student suicide statistics at each of the 10 UC campuses.

As there is no systemwide standard for collecting suicide data, the data reported by each campus cannot directly be compared. Given the responsive records submitted to The Aggie by each of the campuses, however, UC Davis was reporting the highest number of student suicides over the past 11 years — a total of 20, just one death higher than deaths reported by UC Santa Barbara and two deaths higher than deaths reported by UC San Diego. 

Some of the data provided by a few of the campuses were incomplete or insufficient, such as the data provided by UCLA that was inexplicably missing more than half of the 11 years of requested data. 

The following data is an estimate provided by officials and may not represent the actual number of suicides at a given campus.

Student suicide data from each UC campus from 2008-2018: 

  • UC Davis: 20 deaths by suicide
  • UC Santa Barbara: 19 deaths by suicide
  • UC San Diego: 18 deaths by suicide
  • UC Berkeley: 12 deaths by suicide
  • UC Riverside: 11 deaths by suicide
  • UC Irvine: Eight deaths by suicide
  • UC Merced: Four deaths by suicide
  • UC Santa Cruz: Three suicides between 2004-14. The Aggie requested data from 2008-18 and instead, a day after the print deadline for this article, UCSC officials provided data for the time period 2004-14. This was not the specific range of dates requested, and the responsive records were submitted by the university over a year after the CPRA request was officially submitted.
  • UC San Francisco: Zero deaths by suicide — a UCSF spokesperson said this estimate is correct, adding via email that “unless a suicide happens on campus, it is not included in these statistics.”
  • UC Los Angeles: University officials provided an incomplete data set, with the years 2008 through 2014 missing. There were 10 confirmed suicides from 2014 to 2018, with an additional six “possible suicides” reported during this same time period. Although numerous officials at the university were repeatedly asked to explain why the university did not provide six years of requested data, The Aggie did not receive a response by the deadline for this article.

Where is this data coming from?

As there is no systemwide standard for collecting suicide data, the data reported by each campus cannot be directly compared.

In view of the fact that the UC has no systemwide definition of “suicide,” The Aggie reached out to the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) directors at each campus to request their university’s operational definition. 

Dr. Myrla Seibold, the associate CAPS director at UC Merced, sent the following response via email: “As Chair of the UC CAPS Directors I met with all the UC CAPS Directors this afternoon and everyone said that suicide is determined by a coroner.”

Once a death is classified as a suicide by a coroner, each campus has a different response protocol. At UC Davis, Student Affairs is the first campus body to receive notice from the coroner’s office and, from there, a group of campus officials is notified. 

When asked whether Student Affairs keeps a record of previous student suicides in order to document and track this information, Student Affairs Vice Chancellor Emily Galindo said via email that it only keeps a copy of the letters sent out to the families of those students listing available resources. Student Affairs does not notify families in the case of a suicide, a coroner does.

Galindo was also asked whether information collected by Student Affairs related to student suicides is used in any decision-making processes, such as in the allocation of funds for mental health services. She did not directly answer the question.

In an interview, when discussing the estimated 20 student suicides that have occurred over the previous decade at UC Davis, Walter said she does not know whether that number “really reflects the experience of our campus” because it is “simply the number that Student Affairs knows about.”

At SHCS, once officials are notified of a student suicide, they look at whether the student received services there.

“If they were served by a counselor, we would reach out to that counselor to talk to them,” Walter said. “We also do a chart review if the student was served here to look and see [if] they followed up. We just want to know if there’s any opportunity to work on prevention.”

What does this data mean?

There are a number of reasons why the data reported by the campuses varies so widely.

“If one college was more diligent than another in tracking numbers, it could appear to have a crisis on its hands when, in reality, another institution could have equal or higher numbers,” said Chris Brownson, the associate vice president for student affairs and director of the counseling and mental health center at the University of Texas at Austin, in a 2018 article from Inside Higher Ed. 

Additionally, there is no standard detailing when a university should — or should not — count a student suicide as such. This means that there may be certain circumstances, such as a school break or a leave of absence, which might disqualify such a death from being recognized by a university. 

“Not all suicides happen on site, so should they be counting that or not?” said Dr. Jane Pearson, the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) special advisor to the director on suicide research. “Do you want to count over the summer? How many months after somebody graduates? I don’t know if anybody has come to some consensus on how those should be counted.”

Officials from campuses including UC Davis and UC San Diego said that any death of a student by suicide, classified as such by a coroner, would be recognized, regardless of the circumstances. This was not the case, however, at UCSF which recognizes only deaths that have occurred on campus. In 2018, approximately 15% of UCSF’s total student population lived on campus, according to a university spokesperson.

Because there exists virtually no standards at any level regarding the collection and reporting of this data, it becomes challenging to accurately assess the importance of such information. Proponents of collecting this data, however, affirm and emphasize its importance.

“Something as simple as reporting [is] fundamental to […] understanding what happened at the end and being able to look back and figure out what happened over the rest of that time,” said Paul Gionfriddo, the president and CEO of Mental Health America, a long-standing mental health advocacy organization. “That’s how people need to look at this.”

Currently, though, if UC Davis wanted to assess the numbers it had on file, it would not be as easy as pulling up a spreadsheet. 

If pressed, Walter said Student Affairs “could probably go back and look at all of the emails they’ve sent” to assess student suicide in recent years. Adding the SHCS could, if asked, look at their files as well, but “it’s something we’d do detective work to go back and find.”

The number for the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (800) 273-8255.

Written by: Hannah Holzer — campus@theaggie.org 

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Skip Lacaze

    This was good work by your reporter. As an old Slug, I’m embarrassed by UCSC’s failure to keep such records or to respond to a PRA request on time. I suggest that you expand this work to look at the system’s procedures for tracking all deaths, illnesses, and serious injuries, whether on or off campus, academic year or breaks. Accidental drug overdoses seems like an obvious thing to track, in hopes of addressing campuses with poor results or trying to address an upward trend. Also, based on my memories of the dining halls at UCSC, you might want to report on food poisoning and other stomach disorders annually.

    Reply

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