The Danger of Suicide: Responding to Students in Distress
Suicide is reported to be the second leading cause of death of college aged students and is the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds in the U.S as reported by The National Insitute of Mental Health. Suicide claims more lives each year in the U.S. than homicide. In a national survey of college students, 9.5% reported thinking seriously about suicide and 1.5% reported having made a suicide attempt as reported by the Jed Foundation.
Suicide Risk Factors
Unbearable psychological pain is the common element of suicide. People consider killing themselves when they lose hope of finding another way to stop the pain. The risk factors listed below do not predict how any individual will behave. Many people may show some of these signs without ever trying to kill themselves. These are signs that let us know something may be seriously wrong and give us an opportunity to reach out and offer help.
- Significant loss
- Prolonged stress
- Unrelieved symptoms of mental health problems (especially depression and hopelessness)
- Noticeable changes in personality or lifestyle
- Social isolation
- Loss of interest in activities
- Direct or indirect statements about suicide or hopelessness
- Preoccupation with death
- Making a plan or other preparations
- History of previous suicide attempt(s)
Responding to Students in Distress
There are three basic steps for responding to students in emotional distress:
- Deal with Safety Concerns: Rule out any emergency needs requiring immediate response. If there is imminent danger to the student or to others, call UFPD at (352) 392-1111 or dial 911. Establishing safety is essential and emergency responders are trained to intervene in these circumstances.
- Listen to the Studen: Whether or not you know how to fix the problem, genuine concern can provide a human connection at a critical moment. Sometimes a student may only need someone to listen for a short time in order to clarify concerns and validate feelings. As needed, the student can then be referred to a campus or community resource for further help. Students with suicide risk factors should be referred for professional help. Yet even those who are not suicidal may need more help than you can provide. There are many campus and community resources that can offer professional help, including crisis intervention, counseling for the student and consultation for you. Helping resources are provided below.
- Encourage Hope for the Future: Often people in crisis may not be thinking clearly and are in a state of confusion. You can acknowledge this and remind them not to make any significant decisions during this time. This crisis is not usually a permanent state and there may be alternatives that provide hope for the future.
Talking to a Suicidal Student
If you observe risk factors of suicide when responding to a distressed student, the following guidelines are suggested:
- Express your concern to the student and inquire whether he or she may be thinking about suicide.
- Try to discuss suicide openly without judgment or shock.
- Allow the student to express difficult emotions. Often a suicidal person feels angry, helpless, hopeless, worthless, and out of control. Trying to dissuade a student from having these feelings can be perceived as an unwillingness to talk.
- Avoid any promise to keep the student's thoughts of suicide confidential or secret; if needed, getting help may require talking to others.
- Refer the student to a trained counselor. Same-day and emergency appointments are available at both the Counseling and Wellness Center (352-392-1575). Tell the receptionist your call is urgent. You can also consult with a clinician before you talk to the person you are concerned about.
- You can offer to make the call to the counseling agency. Give the person the phone once you have told the counselor what is happening. You can also walk the him/her over to the Crisis and Emergency Resource Center located on the 4th floor of Peabody Hall or call for consultation at 352-392-1575.
- If the person prefers an off-campus contact, call the Alachua County Crisis Center (352-264-6789) 24-hour telephone hotline.
- After hours phone consultation is available through the Counseling and Wellness Center by calling 352-392-1575 or the Alachua County Crisis Center at 352-264-6789.
What if the Student Refuses Help?
It is important to be prepared for potential obstacles when helping a person in distress. Sometimes a person will refuse help; there are still some things you can do. Consider the following options once safety is established: 1. Call for consultation with a counselor. Either the Counseling and Wellness Center (352-392-1575) or Alachua County Crisis Center (352-264-6789) is available to assist. Faculty, staff, friends and family should not have to be responsible for decisions about suicide danger.
2. Call the Dean of Students Office (352-392-1261 or 352-392-1111 after-hours); a Dean may be able to assist.
3. If you are concerned about the immediate safety of the student, call the UFPD at 352-392-1111 or 911
Even when a student has talked to a counselor, it does not mean s/he has followed-through with getting help. Call back if you notice that the person’s risk appears to persist or increase. Keep in mind that counseling resources are governed by confidentiality laws. Follow-up information cannot be disclosed unless the student has signed a release of information. Working with suicidal person can be challenging and even frightening. However, getting involved can make a difference and can help prevent suicide.
Guidelines for Helping
- Deal with safety concerns
- Listen empathically to the student
- Talk openly about suicide
- Get the student appropriate help
- Consult with a counselor