How many college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries? Or car crashes? Or suicide?

There are many groups that calculate estimates, but James C. Turner, director of the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia, says an official count hasn’t been taken in more than 70 years. So during his term as president of the American College Health Association, Turner asked more than 1,150 schools to share their mortality rates for students between the ages of 18 and 24 during the 2009-10 academic year.

Just over 150 public and private schools responded, and from what Turner has learned so far, death rates for college students could be significantly lower than previously estimated — especially for alcohol-related injuries and traffic deaths. He said the leading cause of student deaths could be suicide.

At the schools he surveyed, Turner said that for every 100,000 students there were just over six suicides and fewer than five alcohol-related deaths. (If you combine alcohol-related traffic deaths with those that did not involve alcohol, there were nearly seven deaths per 100,000 students.)

While alcohol abuse is still a critical issue on most campuses, Turner said student depression and other mental health issues need just as much attention. And there is a dire need for standardized methodology for tracking and reporting student deaths.

“My plea is that future studies look at school data and not simply extrapolations” of data for college-aged students, said Turner, who presented his findings at an American Public Health Association meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Many of those extrapolations are calculated by Ralph W. Hingson, who has closely studied trends in alcohol-related deaths on college campuses for years. Hingson said that because college administrators are not required to track or report student deaths, the numbers they volunteer to researchers are likely underestimates.

You can read Turner’s abstract and presentation on the American Public Health Association Web site.