College Suicide Prevention Guide
- Thoughts of suicide are on the rise among U.S. college students, due in part to the pandemic.
- According to research, 1 in 3 college students has a mental health condition.
- Recognizing the warning signs of suicide is key to saving someone's life.
- Students should know how to talk about suicide without blame or judgment.
Death by suicide is a serious public health issue. In the U.S., suicide rates increased 15% from 2010 to 2019, with more than 45,000 people dying by suicide in 2019. Among young people aged 10-34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
The factors leading someone to attempt suicide are typically multifaceted. Research suggests that economic downturns, a rise in mental illness, and a growing sense of isolation might have contributed to higher suicide rates in the U.S.
Recently, challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have led more college students to seriously contemplate suicide.
The Rise of Suicide on College Campuses
The risk of suicide among college students continues to rise. According to a 2019 study conducted by the American College Health Association, 2 in 3 undergraduates felt overwhelming anxiety in the past 12 months, and 14% seriously considered suicide.
While causes vary, experts believe the pressure of adjusting to college's academic and social demands, combined with the absence of a support network, may lead to the development or worsening of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions in students.
Additionally, college-bound students with psychiatric disorders may feel more easily overwhelmed by the expectations of their new campus surroundings than those without. Research by the World Health Organization found that roughly 1 in 3 first-year students has a mental health condition, such as an anxiety, mood, or substance use disorder.
Data also shows that about 1 in 10 full-time U.S. college students meets the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
What Are the Biggest Risk Factors for Suicide?
Many factors can help us determine whether a person is at high risk of attempting suicide.
Statistics show that those who have attempted suicide are 38 times more likely to die by suicide, while individuals with a history of alcohol misuse are six times more likely to die by suicide. Those with mood disorders and access to fatal means are also at a higher risk of suicide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following as some of the most common risk factors for suicide:
- Previous suicide attempt(s)
- Family history of suicide, violence, and/or mental disorders
- Alcohol and/or substance misuse
- Family history of alcohol and/or substance misuse
- Underlying psychiatric and/or mood disorder
- Traumatic life event
- Access to lethal weapons and/or substances
- Social isolation and/or alienation
- Medical conditions, such as a chronic ailment or terminal illness
- Relationship problems, including loss and violence
What Are the Warning Signs of Suicide?
Being able to identify the warning signs of suicide can mean the difference between life and death.
Research shows that while risk factors can affect an entire demographic and occur more frequently in certain communities, warning signs are specific to the individual in crisis. Warning signs indicate a need for immediate professional medical intervention.
Here are some of the most common warning signs of suicide:
- Extreme mood swings and/or personality changes
- Increased fixation on death, suicide, and/or violence
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Communicating feelings of hopelessness
- Expressing a desire or plan to die by suicide
- Giving away belongings of special meaning or significance
- Obtaining a weapon or other means of lethal self-harm
- Increased alcohol and/or substance use
- Engaging in risky and/or dangerous behavior
- Loss of interest in people, things, places, and activities
- Feeling suddenly happier or at peace (may be due to coming to terms with the decision to end their life)
How to Help Someone Who May Be Considering Suicide
Helping someone who may be thinking about suicide can be difficult. This is why knowing the right steps to take is vital to providing effective help for a friend, roommate, classmate, or loved one in crisis.
You can start by paying attention to potential warning signs, talking openly about suicide, and letting them know you're there for them. You may be the key factor in connecting this person to a professional who can help them through this painful time in their life.
You can also reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the person's therapist or doctor. Reassure them that they're not alone and that you, as well as the professionals involved, are there to support them.
For emergencies, call 911 for immediate assistance if your safety or the safety of the suicidal person has been compromised. Avoid leaving that person alone and remove any lethal means from their reach.
Signs you're experiencing an emergency include the following:
- The person in question has suddenly lost or gained a significant amount of weight and/or has drastically changed their appearance.
- The person has abandoned all social activities and become reclusive.
- The person is suddenly unable to maintain a routine (e.g., cannot hold down a job or has difficulty regularly attending class).
- The person is suddenly engaging in risky or dangerous behavior, such as substance and alcohol misuse.
- The person has suddenly become involved in harmful situations that seem out of character for them, such as an abusive relationship.
Once you've called for assistance, continue to offer support — holding the person's hand if necessary — until professional help arrives.
Know How to Talk About Suicide
Openly talking about suicide isn't something most people have experience doing on a regular basis. But if you ever find yourself in the position of needing to lend an ear to someone who may be suicidal, knowing how to positively interact with them can be a crucial step toward getting help and potentially saving a life.
Even though you may instinctively feel highly emotional about the suicidal person's statements, you should avoid reacting in a way that's judgmental or makes the person feel even more isolated.
The following are just a few examples of positive conversation starters, questions, and words of encouragement for a person experiencing suicidal thoughts:
- "I've been concerned about you and wanted to see how you're doing."
- "How can I support you right now?"
- "Have you considered getting help?"
- "I'm here for you. You're not alone."
- "I care about you and I want to help."
When Helping Someone Who May Be Suicidal, DO:
- Be Authentic: Talk openly and honestly with this person. They won't expect you to use the perfect words but will sense that you're truly concerned if you simply mean what you say.
- Listen to Them: The person considering suicide may need to vent their feelings, anger, or frustrations, so take time to sit and listen. Take their willingness to express themselves and unload their feelings as a positive sign.
- Be Sympathetic, Patient, and Calm: It takes a lot of strength and courage for a suicidal person to share their story. If they're able to open up to you, they're relying on you to be accepting and nonjudgmental.
- Be Direct and Matter-of-Fact: Avoid tiptoeing around the subject of suicide. Listening to the person's concerns and tackling the subject head on is the best way to prove you're comfortable talking to them and can be a trusted confidante.
- Offer Hope When They Need It Most: Your unconditional support and encouragement is crucial at this time. Let them know they can seek professional help, and reassure them that their feelings are temporary and that you value their presence in your life.
When Helping Someone Who May Be Suicidal, DO NOT:
- Argue or Get Combative: Avoid argumentative statements that could make that person feel wrong for feeling the way they do. Refrain from using phrases like "But you have so much to live for" or "Think of how suicide could hurt your family."
- Start Lecturing Them: A person in crisis doesn't need to hear your opinions about their actions from a moral, ethical, or religious standpoint. Try to stay objective — don't judge them for their actions or shame them for their beliefs.
- Swear to Secrecy: As much as you may want to promise confidentiality, if the life of this person is at risk, you may have to seek help from a professional to ensure their safety.
- Offer Advice or Try to Fix Their Problems: Avoid offering solutions or promising unrealistic answers to try to "solve" the suicidal person's issues. They shouldn't feel like a burden or that they have to justify their thoughts or feelings to you.
- Blame Yourself: Though you can always offer hope and support to those experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can't control the actions of others. You can't "fix" someone else or take on the responsibility of repairing or restoring anyone's mental state.
How to Get Help If You're Thinking About Suicide
Getting help for suicidal thoughts is the most important step, whether it's someone you know or you yourself experiencing these thoughts.
First, give yourself permission to get help from a professional. The American Association of Suicidiology maintains a list of local suicide prevention hotlines, all of which are available 24/7. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
In an emergency, call 911, your doctor, or a crisis intervention specialist. Alternatively, you can go to a medical or psychiatric clinic for immediate care.
Don't feel as though you have to stay isolated or alone. Understand that the professionals you're contacting are there to help and support you.
Rayelle Davis is a nationally board-certified counselor and a licensed clinical professional counselor. As a nontraditional student, she earned her associate degree in psychology at Allegany College of Maryland. She went on to earn her bachelor's degree in psychology online at the University of Maryland Global Campus. Davis earned her master's degree in counseling education with a concentration in marriage, couples, and family therapy from Duquesne University. She has taught several undergraduate psychology courses. She is currently a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Duquesne University and practices psychotherapy in Maryland. Rayelle Davis is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
Disclaimer: The above is intended as an information resource only. We are not a medical organization and cannot give medical advice. If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, seek medical help or dial 911.
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