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Loss and Grief: Supporting Your StudentDavid Tuttle
Two young lives cut short in less than two weeks, by their own hands. Students at the university my son attends have instantly touched every member of their campus community, and countless more beyond.
I froze as I read the email from the university. A million thoughts swirled as I tried to process the unthinkable pain that these students had to be in, and the even more unfathomable agony their families were now immersed in. Devastating and heartbreaking loss. Families forever changed.
Then I texted my son. He had been very stressed over the past week and I wasn’t sure how he’d process all of this. As parents, our thoughts naturally turn to our own children, especially in times of tragedy.
College students everywhere are coming off a year and a half of extraordinary challenges. Like all school kids, they had to adjust to virtual learning and living in a world that, at least temporarily, didn’t feel as safe or hopeful as it once did. But college kids had another layer of difficulty to work through — grieving the loss of their burgeoning independence. Their routines were yanked out from under them, not being able to live in a dorm or apartment, and missing out on all the special moments that usually accompany college life.
We can imagine that this new school year has felt like a high speed acceleration back to “regular” life, challenging most and piling untold stress on top of already existing mental health struggles.
No one knows the inner anguish that led these two young people to feel that there was no hope. But we should have known.
The university’s heartfelt response was nearly instantaneous — mobilizing staff and student groups to offer support following the first suicide, and expanding with genuine love and intense concern after the second. Outreach took place through every possible avenue: email, social media, word-of-mouth for those on campus. Counseling centers, advisors, student groups, ministries and a day dedicated to reflection and self-care (filled with activities like coffee and chatting, yoga, and creating a memory garden) and more.
All of this was comforting and offered a welcomed source of light in this heavy, dark time.
The energy on campus and in our virtual community is pulsating with love, awareness and purpose right now. And while this is desperately needed and an impactful change, I can’t help but wonder how long it will last.
Humans tend to be great at coming together right after tragedies. The support flows freely. But after a period of time, sometimes just a few weeks, we fall back into our routines and lives.
Our challenge to ourselves needs to be to not let this happen. Support networks and programs should be put in place to be everlasting. We need a fully equipped team: from the family to friends to campus staff to campus organizations and more. This way, if one part of the team is lacking, another part can step up. When some fall back into normal routines, others can fill the void.
I hope and pray that we start a mindset shift. One that will keep people coming together before any more tragedies like this occur. There are many incredible resources to help those struggling with mental health, thoughts of suicide and more. Some national organizations are listed at the end of this article.
We can all be proactive in educating ourselves and engaging in conversations when and wherever we have the opportunity: within our families, our neighborhoods and friend groups, our school, work and faith communities.
Most campuses have a counseling center as well as campus ministries, and there will also be counseling and therapy resources in the local community. Phone numbers (including 24/7 on-call counseling support for students over the phone and by text) and information about campus, community and national mental health resources will be available on the college's health and counseling website.
It is essential to keep in mind, though, that resources are only helpful if they are utilized. Family members must remain connected and aware. We must remove the stigma associated with discussing mental health and check in regularly with our loved ones. Let’s help our loved ones to feel comfortable sharing openly, even and especially if they are having suicidal thoughts. We should then encourage those we care about to seek support when they need it, perhaps even offering to accompany them.
Key to this effort are our students themselves. They are on the front lines of this fight to nurture mental health among their friends. We can and should help them to recognize a friend who might be in crisis and then support them in getting help. (Some warning signs to look out for are listed below.)
Since this can sometimes be uncomfortable, we should remind them that they can seek assistance from their RA, a trusted professor or the campus counseling center. And they shouldn't hesitate to call 9-1-1 and campus safety if their instincts tell them they should.
If you’re at all like me, you probably don’t regularly think about the possibility of suicide on your college student’s campus. There are many hazards we parents do worry about, but this may not be one that often crosses your mind. Until it happens. And then, for a while, it’s all we can think about.
Channeling our thoughts and our worries into action is one of the most meaningful ways we can help those who are struggling or grieving, and help to prevent others from ever reaching such a desperate place.
Changing behaviors, such as:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (available 24/7)
Active Minds has become the premier organization impacting young adults and mental health. Now with peer-run chapters on more than 800 campuses, they directly reach close to 600,000 students each year through campus awareness campaigns, events, advocacy and more.
The Jed Foundation is a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults, giving them the skills and support they need to thrive today and into the future.
The Trevor Project's crisis counselors are trained to answer calls, chats or texts from LGBTQ+ young people who reach out on their free, confidential and secure 24/7 service when struggling with issues such as coming out, LGBTQ identity, depression and suicide. Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.