A few months ago I woke up to a heart-stopping text from a close friend that read, “Sam tried to kill himself last night. Please keep us in your thoughts.”
My friend’s son was away at college and was distraught over a break-up. Several days of panic and confusion ensued as the family asked “why?” and “what next?”
After their son was discharged from the inpatient psychiatric unit they brought him home to recover. Like many of his peers, Sam had been grappling with the typical hardships of growing up and being away from home, but he had a close-knit group of friends, was doing okay academically, and had family support.
Now his family learned that Sam had also been struggling with a major depressive disorder and substance abuse, increasing the risk of acting on suicidal thoughts after the loss of a significant relationship.
According to the journal article “Suicide Exposure, Awareness and Attitudes in College Students,” a young person (age 15-24) dies by suicide every two minutes and seven seconds in the United States (McIntosh, 2013). One study from the same journal article reported that, out of 1,800 students at four universities, 24 percent of students had considered suicide and five percent had attempted suicide while in college (Westfall et al, 2005).
The Jason Foundation, an organization aimed at youth suicide prevention, reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death among middle school and high school students and the third leading cause of death among college students. Of importance, suicide among males is four times higher than females, although females have a higher rate of attempted suicide. More facts and figures can be found here.
Suicide among our youth is an emotional and difficult topic but one we need to confront. Even the most informed of parents or guardians might miss the risk factors or warning signs. Below are risk factors and protective factors identified by the Youth Suicide Prevention Program. Our hope and goal as parents is to encourage protective factors in order to minimize the impact of risk factors.
These factors, associated with increased risk for suicidal
behavior, fall into four categories: psychological, biological,
environmental and existential.
These factors reduce the risk of
If you are concerned about your student and recognize a significant imbalance in risk versus protective factors, it’s important to say something. If your student is in high school and you notice her struggling with anxiety, stress, depressive symptoms or substance abuse, seek help from the school counselor or a local therapist in your community. Talk to a few of her teachers. And, if you know her friends’ parents, tactfully inquire about how her mood and behavior seem around them.
Having a student away at college may pose a far greater challenge as you only have the phone or Skype to “check in.” If your student had difficulties in high school, having a plan for continuing care and keeping in touch when she leaves for college becomes even more important. Occasional weekend visits, no matter the distance, will help you to get a feel for what your student is going through and how she is coping with the stressors of college life.
If at any time you notice consistent statements alluding to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, isolation or dramatic change in diet and sleep, it may be time to have a serious conversation and seek a consultation with a campus or community therapist or psychiatrist. Remember, she may be a young adult living independently, but she is still your student. You know her.
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