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Suicide awareness and prevention

By Amanda Taylor

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High School Parent | College Parent

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.

story-icon-bar-convo-3If you are worried about your student, call the Counseling or Health Center at the college. Unless you have signed a HIPAA release form they will not be able to share information with you, but they can listen to your concerns and reach out to your student. In an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Depending on the situation it also may be necessary to call campus emergency services or 911.

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.

RISK FACTORS

These factors, associated with increased risk for suicidal
behavior, fall into four categories: psychological, biological,
environmental and existential. 

  • Family history of mental illness
    or substance abuse
  • Physical illness or disability
  • Mental illness
  • Impulsivity
  • Learning disorders
  • LGBTQ teens are at a higher
    risk
  • Family history of suicide
  • Exposure to suicide
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Bullying
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Abuse/trauma history
  • Academic stress
  • Feeling isolated and alone
  • Substance abuse
  • Pregnancy
  • Poverty
  • Racism
  • Stigma for seeking help
  • Access to weapon or pills

PROTECTIVE FACTORS

These factors reduce the risk of
suicidal behavior. 

  • Access to mental health and
    substance abuse services
  • Strong ties with family and
    community
  • A trusted and supportive peer group
  • Religious or cultural beliefs that
    discourage suicidal behavior
  • A positive and supportive school
    environment/access to
    counselors
  • Skills in problem solving and
    conflict resolution

Warning signs (courtesy of SAVE, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)

  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Talking or joking about wanting to die
  • Talking about not having a way out or feeling hopeless
  • Researching ways to die or purchasing a gun
  • Increased agitation/irritability
  • Increased use of alcohol or other substances
  • Reckless behavior
  • Mood changes
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Giving things away
  • Writing goodbye letters or saying goodbye to loved ones
  • Putting affairs in order
  • Isolating from friends and family

Speaking up and seeking help

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.

 Something to keep in mind and share with your high school or college student: their brains are still developing…until the age of twenty-five! This means the ability to access protective factors — even if there are many — may be compromised during a stressful life event. Instead, feeling that "nothing will ever get better," coupled with impulsive behavior, may trump rational thinking and lead to acting out in negative ways.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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