Colleges are trying to help students learn to cope while also addressing mental health issues.

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Story highlights

Increase in number of college students who seriously considered suicide, per report

More than 1,000 college students kill themselves every year

Schools and universities are training students, faculty and staff in suicide prevention

CNN  — 

Just a handful of days into the new semester at Penn State this fall, a student came to the counseling center in the throes of a panic attack, crying and upset, said Ben Locke, associate director of clinical services for the school’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services.

The student tried to get support from family and was turned away. “There’s no question that the services we will give to (the student) will change (the student’s) life … and reducing stigma for those people is absolutely important and critical,” said Locke.

As that story suggests, mental health needs on campus are real and serious. They’re also growing, which is why as the first weeks of classes get underway at colleges and universities across the country, institutions are ramping up operations to try to keep their students safe.

The statistics are alarming.

Nearly 31% of students – almost one out of three who sought counseling in the 2013-2014 academic year – have said they seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives. Five years ago, it was 25%, according to the most recent annual report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

Equally concerning is the significant increase in the percentage of students who have purposely harmed themselves, such as engaging in cutting, hitting, burning and hair pulling, without intending to kill themselves. Almost 24% of college students who sought counseling in 2013-2014 had injured themselves at some point during their lifetimes compared to 21% five years earlier.

“When you put those two together, what they’re really reflecting is students are more willing than ever to articulate being overwhelmed and to take that out on themselves, either through self-injury or through talking about the possibility of suicide or thinking actively about that and that plays out in all areas of university life,” said Locke, who is also executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

“So universities are coping with the consequences of these kinds of behaviors and thoughts in ways that we haven’t necessarily seen historically on a much greater scale.”

At the same time, there has not been a significant increase in the number of students who have attempted suicide. That number has remained relatively flat, with 8% of students who sought counseling in 2008 reporting a suicide attempt at some point in their lives, compared to just under 9% five years later.

Related: When mental illness affects your family

But still, that means nearly one out of 10 students who went to counseling on campus said they tried to kill themselves at some point. More than 1,000 college students kill themselves every year and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, according to a report by Emory University. Colleges and universities are constantly evaluating and updating their suicide prevention efforts to try to get their students the mental health help they need.

What schools are doing to help

From conversations with more than a half-dozen counseling professionals at schools around the country, it’s clear that a main area of focus is training faculty, staff and students on suicide prevention.

During orientation at The Ohio State University, first-year students learn how to recognize warning signs of suicide, how to empathetically engage a person in distress and how to ask directly about suicide.

“We’re big proponents on ‘It’s OK to ask the question.’ We need to be able to ask the question, ‘Are you struggling with depression? Are you struggling with suicidal thoughts?’ ” said Matthew Fullen, program manager for Ohio State University’s Suicide Prevention Program.

Students are then taught how to help students access care and treatment.

“What we do talk about in our trainings with students as well as staff and faculty is that suicide is preventable and one of the ways that we prevent it is by encouraging students who are struggling with depression and anxiety to seek help early on,” Fullen said.

Ohio State is one of a number of colleges and universities that received a Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act grant from the the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The grants are named in honor of former Sen. Gordon Smith’s son, who died by suicide while in college.

Before Ohio State received a grant in 2007, 12.6% of its students answered that they received education or training in suicide prevention, according to the American College Health Association. That number jumped to 41.8% in 2014, which means that more than 27,000 students out of a student body of nearly 65,000 have received information about suicide prevention, according to the university.

“We really are interested in how many students, faculty and