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Blackout Drinking on CampusMarybeth Bock, MPH
September is National Suicide Prevention Month in the U.S.
This month, mental health organizations and schools bring awareness to this continued public health problem by offering awareness, education, support, and trainings for both parents and students.
Tragically, this is also a season when we hear about campus suicides. As we get deeper into a new academic year, here are things to know about youth and young adult suicide.
While a sensitive topic that families and students don't always feel comfortable discussing, attempted or completed death by suicide is something that any college student might indirectly or directly experience this semester. For each death by suicide, 135 other acquaintances (friends, roommates, co-workers, teammates, relatives) are affected by the experience.
One of the biggest stressors for college students is the transition from high school to college. No matter how much they looked forward to and prepared for college, it's a period marked by extreme emotions and pressures, intimidating and frustrating “firsts,” and sometimes overwhelming feelings of depression, anxiety, and insecurity.
For the first time, students must make independent decisions, manage multiple demands, feel real loneliness, solve conflicts, and navigate difficult feelings. Academic demands are intense. Support systems may not be solid — or students may hesitate to reach out for the help they need.
The weight of these struggles can mask the reality that help is available. As parents, peers, professionals, friends, and mentors, we all play a critical role in helping students overcome feelings of despair, helplessness, and hopelessness, and preventing death by suicide.
The most important and effective way to safeguard student mental health is to have open dialogue about anything related to mental health. It's okay to be direct when talking about suicidal thoughts, ideation, and plans.
Create a safe space to support these conversations. Don't be afraid to talk about suicide despite feeling uncomfortable, or to ask your student how they are self-managing. Ask open-ended questions. Listen intently and notice nuances. Ask about social connections, self-care, and wellness habits like sleep, exercise, and stress management.
Refrain from secrecy and unsolicited advice. Let your student know they are safe, supported, and not judged.
Some students arrive on campus with a mental health diagnosis or undiagnosed mental struggles. In fact, one national survey states 41% of college students report having symptoms of depression.
Diagnoses or not, checking in regularly with your student does not mean you are helicoptering. Stay in touch through ways that your student is most likely to respond. Get to know their roommates if there's an opportunity. Know what's going on in your student's daily life (even if you don't talk that often).
Ask, “How are you really doing?” Create a verbal bond that encourages them to seek you (or someone else) out. As the adult, shed the shame of staying connected with your student despite society convincing you that you are overprotective. There's a difference between hovering over and solving your child’s problems for them and simply listening to their voice, laying eyes on their appearance, and noticing behavior changes.
The state of students’ mental health plays a critical role in risk factors for suicide. Knowing warning signs of suicidal thoughts and ideas and of depression is your main mode of protection and prevention should your student become incapable of managing mental distress.
Listen to your intuition when you feel something is off. Do they talk about giving up, not being able to "do this" anymore? Ask about sexual trauma, feelings of isolation. Is there verbiage such as wishing to end pain? Have there been family issues or mental health struggles? Are mood swings severe enough to be concerning? Has sexual orientation and identity been a challenge? Is withdrawing from usually enjoyable activities a new behavior? Are academics slipping? Is there a preoccupation with death? Has there been increased risk-taking behavior such as caring less about being injured or killed? Is your student giving away possessions?
Ask, ask, ask. Pay attention to factors that would increase the risk of wanting to die by suicide. This list is not exhaustive.
Remember, all mentions or jokes about suicide should be taken seriously.
988 (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) is the easiest to remember. There are both on- and off-campus local help lines, as well as national help lines.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.