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Friday, September 19, 2014

Washington Post in Need of Editors

At 10:18 yesterday morning, on PostEverything, Elizabeth Hawksworth, a Toronto-based writer, posted an article making the claims that "It’s estimated that 1.5 students out of every 100 will commit suicide at some point during their college career," and that "Suicide rates among college students have increased by 200 percent since the 1950s."   

For the casual reader, both of the cited statistics might have been alarming. Thankfully, they are both wrong.  As of this morning (i.e. the next day) at 7:10 a.m., there has been no correction of either. 

Don't get me wrong -- Ms. Hawksworth has an important message to convey, based on her own experience.  Articles like this are worth reading.  But they should be accurate.

The first statistic -- 1.5% out of 100 will commit suicide -- if true, would make college more dangerous than a military combat tour of duty (ok, I don't have statistics on that, but I'm pretty sure fewer than one in a hundred have died in recent wars).  If you click on the link and scroll around a bit, you find that the 1.5% relates to suicide attempts, which is obviously going to be a much higher number.  The link doesn't give a statistic for how many commit suicide "at some point during their college career," but it does say that there are 1100 suicides at colleges per year, which is 7.5% out of 100,000 students (per year).  We'd have to have additional information to convert the "per year" figure to "at some point during their college career," but in any event, it's clear that the actual suicide rate is much lower than 1.5%.  Still, 1100 is a lot of kids, and that's something we should all worry about.

The author links to a secondary source -- for these statistics, and cites additional secondary sources.  So it's hard to tell if the statistics they report are even accurate.

Some of the commenters noticed this problem, but those comments were not at the top of the comment list, so casual readers would have missed them.   

As for the second statistic -- that suicide rates among college students have increased by 200 percent since the 1950s, that sounds very believable to me, but that's not what the linked source says either.  The linked source (something with the "American Association of Suicidology" logo) says:  

"8. Youth (ages 15-24) suicide rates increased more than 200% from the 1950’s to the late 1970’s. From the late 1970’s to the mid 1990’s, suicide rates for youth remained stable and, since then, have slightly decreased."

So that's different on two counts -- first, it's not talking about college students, it's just talking about "youth", and second, the actual statistic makes it clear that the 200% increase occurred 35 years ago (between the 1950s and late 1970s) and that the rate has "slightly decreased" since then.  

But to add to the confusion, this statistic is inconsistent with the statistic presented in her other source, which says that suicide rates in the 15-24 age group have tripled since the 1950s.

It would be very interesting to have some honest statistics about college students here, e.g. how suicide rates among college students differ from non-college students in the same age group -- I had heard that the prevalence of depression among college students has escalated, simply because today there are medications available to control depression.  But I don't know which way that cuts -- if there are more depressed college students, maybe that should mean more suicides, but if the medication is working, then maybe not.  But we're not getting helpful statistics here on PostEverything. 

Suicide is serious and tragic, and public awareness of the problem is important.  But let's keep the statistics straight.

So what exactly is "PostEverything"?  If they are simply in the business of posting everything, then perhaps I shouldn't complain.  But the "Post" appears to stand for Washington Post, and the "everything" just seems to be a reference to the scope of possible subject matter.  According to the  kickoff description by Adam B. Kushner, PostEverything "is an attempt to expand the conversation outward," to topics like"

"Should we worry about the robot takeover of U.S. jobs? Ask an economist. What are some of the dumbest things people think about American foreign policy? Ask a political scientist. How do football teams draft prospects, what does it feel like to confess to atheism in a deeply religious place, is Russia really seeding Crimea with more Russian citizens, and how did university sexual-assault policies get to be so daft? Ask the people who are in a position to answer."

I still think they have a responsibility to read what is posted, and get the author to make corrections as necessary.

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