Understanding Hazardous Drinking and Suicidal Ideation and Suicide Risk among College Students: Anxiety Sensitivity as an Explanatory Factor

Suicide persists as a serious public health problem worldwide and in the United States, specifically. In addition to the loss of life, suicide results in tremendous pain to hundreds of thousands of families and loved ones each year. In particular, college students may be at risk for suicide and/or suicidal ideation. Transitions into college and young adulthood is associated with numerous changes and stressors. In the United States, for example, there are unprecedented levels of student debt for college students and concerns about securing a job after graduation. We know from past work that a high proportion of college students have had thoughts about suicide. Of concern, more and more college students have been thinking about suicide. An additional, yet related, problem is alcohol misuse among college students. It is well documented that young adults and college students drink. College students who do drink tend to drink at heavy/dangerous levels more than their same aged peers who are not in college. Concerningly, alcohol is a depressant and is associated with numerous forms of negative affect states (e.g., depression, anxiety). Alcohol misuse has been shown to also play a role in suicidal ideation. But more work is needed to understand the link between alcohol and suicide/suicidal ideation.

We conducted this study to explore how anxiety sensitivity might partially explain the relation between hazardous drinking and suicidal ideation and among college students. Anxiety sensitivity is an individual difference factor that predisposes individuals to experience negative mood states. It has been dubbed “fear of fear” and basically represents how individuals think/respond to physiological sensations. People with relatively high anxiety sensitivity tend to think that normal physiological sensations (e.g., racing heart) are dangerous or mean that something bad is going to happen. We thought that hazardous drinking might be related to anxiety sensitivity and that anxiety sensitivity would be associated with suicidal ideation and suicide risk.

The findings support our hypotheses. Hazardous drinking was indeed associated with suicidal ideation and suicide risk. Anxiety sensitivity explained a significant portion of these associations. Thus, hazardous drinking may impact anxiety sensitivity and anxiety sensitivity may lead to suicidal ideation/risk. However, further work is needed in order to determine whether such associations play out over time and if these variables have any causal relation to one another. Nevertheless, we now have greater evidence that future research should consider anxiety sensitivity as a potential avenue towards reducing hazardous drinking and suicidal ideation/risk among college students.

Read the full paper: Paulus, D. J., Capron, D. W., & Zvolensky, M. J. (2020). Understanding Hazardous Drinking and Suicidal Ideation and Suicide Risk among College Students: Anxiety Sensitivity as an Explanatory Factor. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. 10.1080/16506073.2020.1840622

Pictured: Dan Paulus

Picture by: Denkrahm

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