Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15736 Race-Ethnicity Differences In Help-Seeking Among Suicidal College Students

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 4:30 PM
Independence B (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Marilyn F. Downs, PhD, Director of Outreach, Counseling and Mental Health Service, Tufts University, Medford, MA
Background and Purpose: Suicide is estimated to be the second leading cause of death among college students in the United States. Mental illness is considered a major contributory factor in suicide fatalities, yet many suicidal students do not receive any mental health treatment and an estimated 80% of those who die by suicide were never seen by campus mental health services. Limited prior research has investigated factors associated with the underutilization of services in this population, including possible differences in help-seeking by race-ethnicity. The purpose of this study was to examine how race-ethnicity is correlated with help-seeking attitudes, beliefs, social network factors, and mental health service use among suicidal college students. Help-seeking is conceptualized as a multi-dimensional process in which social and cultural contexts influence individuals' perspectives about mental health problems and their potential resolution.

Methods: The study uses data from the Healthy Minds Study, a Web-based survey administered in spring 2009 to a random sample of 8,487 undergraduate and graduate students from 15 universities. The focus of the present study is on the subsample of respondents with suicidal ideation (n = 543), which was measured with a question about any serious thoughts of suicide in the prior 12 months. Help-seeking attitudes and beliefs investigated included perceived need for help, beliefs about treatment effectiveness, perceived stigma, and personal stigma. Social network factors included contact with mental health service users, encouragement to seek services, and perceived warm and trusting relationships. Self-reported barriers and facilitators to service use were also examined. Treatment utilization was measured by the reported use of therapy or psychotropic medication in the previous 12 months. Descriptive analyses used chi-square, ANOVA, and t-tests to compare variances in help-seeking attitudes and behaviors by race-ethnicity. Multivariate analyses employed hierarchical logistic regressions to estimate predictors of past year treatment use. Response propensity weights were applied in all analyses to account for potential survey response bias.

Results: Results showed that 51.5% of all respondents with suicidal ideation received any treatment during the previous 12 months. Rates of treatment use were significantly lower among Asian, Black, and Latino students compared to non-Latino White students. In regression analyses, ethnic minority respondents had lower odds of using mental health services relative to White respondents, even when controlling for personal attitudes, beliefs, and social network variables. Descriptive analyses indicated significant race-ethnicity variances in a range of factors correlated with help-seeking, including perceived need, personal and perceived stigma, treatment beliefs, personal contact with service users, and encouragement to seek help.

Conclusions and Implications: The lower rate of treatment use among ethnic minority students compared to White students represents an important disparity that should be a focus of suicide prevention initiatives. Findings indicate that race-ethnicity is correlated with a number of variances in personal attitudes and social network factors that may partially account for the differential use of services. Efforts to increase treatment use among suicidal college students should use comprehensive strategies that are tailored to address the varied personal, social, and cultural factors associated with mental health help-seeking.

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