Suicidality and College Students
Although college years can be a time of excitement and challenge, many students experience difficulty with the changes and pressures that can be part of the college experience. When psychological difficulties and emotional pain become intolerable, they can result in suicidal thoughts and attempts. Thoughts of suicide are not uncommon among college students; in fact, the Center for Disease Control reported that, in 2013, the percentage of people who had serious thoughts about suicide in the past year was the highest among adults between 18 and 25 years old. Importantly, suicidality is not an isolated phenomenon; estimates show that suicidal thoughts and attempts are very often associated with depression, and other treatable conditions (Garlow et al.,2008). Fortunately, the vast majority of students experiencing suicidal thoughts do not make an attempt, and the vast majority of attempts do not result in actual suicides.
Why do Students Consider Suicide?
We all experience feelings of loneliness, depression, helplessness, and hopelessness from time to time. The death of a family member, the breakup of a relationship, injuries to our self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, academic difficulties, and/or financial setbacks are serious problems that most of us can expect to face at some point in our lives. Each person's emotional makeup is unique, and each of us responds to situations differently, so even something that may seem of minor importance to one person can be extremely distressing to another.
Regardless of the nature of the crisis, if a person feels overwhelmed, without options, and/or is clinically depressed, there is danger that suicide may represent a solution to her. Because intense emotional distress can blind people to alternative solutions and available resources, suicide may appear to be the way out of an intolerable situation or unbearable pain. The tragedy is, of course, is that other solutions can always be created.
Signs of Risk
While some suicides occur without warning, most people at risk show some sign of their distress:
- Depression. According to the American Foundation on Suicide Prevention, suicidality among college students is, in the vast majority of cases, linked to depression. Symptoms of depression include:
- Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Loss of interest in activities formerly enjoyed
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Changes in appetite
- Diminished ability to concentrate
- Among students who are depressed, substance abuse, anxiety, impulsivity, and feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and desperation increase the risk
- Recent important losses or relationship breakups
- Isolation and/or withdrawal from friends and activities
- Giving personal or prized possessions away
- Taking unnecessary risks, or self-destructive behavior
- Talking about death or suicide. People who are considering suicide may make such indirect statements as:
“I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”
“My family would be better off without me.”
“I walked right out in front of traffic again today…it’s
like I don’t even care.”
- Changes in appetite
- Diminished ability to concentrate
- Previous suicide gestures or attempts
- A family history that includes suicide
Myths About Suicide
The stress of being a college student makes suicide more likely.
Actually, statistical evidence indicates that suicide is less frequent among college students than among their same-age peers who are not students.
Being at a prestigious, selective college makes suicide more likely.
No relationship has been found between student suicide rates and institutional prestige or size, nor to one's class standing.
If a person is seriously considering suicide, there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Most suicidal crises are time-limited, and are based on serious depressive symptoms, including distorted or unclear thinking and an experience of intolerable emotional pain. A person considering suicide does not want death so much as an escape from her pain, and can be helped in several ways. First, she will benefit from simply knowing that help is available, and from having the support of others through the immediate crisis period. She can be helped to clarify and expand her perceptions of her situation so that she can see previously hidden alternatives, or reconsider those that she had decided were impossible or unacceptable. She can be helped to understand that intolerable pain is usually, in fact, barely tolerable pain – and can be survived. Most important, she can receive treatment for depression, which involves psychotherapy that may be augmented by antidepressant medications.
Don’t ask a depressed person about suicide, because you might give her the idea.
Emotional crises themselves trigger the thought of suicide in a vulnerable person. Your openness and concern in asking about it can allow her to feel less lonely or isolated, and perhaps a bit relieved. Asking this question shows caring – and it will also provide you with an opportunity to support her in getting help.
What Can I Do to Help?
- If you think someone you know may be seriously depressed and/or suicidal, you should:
- Be calm, non-judgmental, and willing to listen. You don't need to say much, and there are no “right words.” Your voice and manner will show your caring and concern.
- Deal directly with the topic of suicide. Even people thinking seriously about suicide usually have mixed feelings about it and are open to help. Don't be afraid to ask directly: “Have you been thinking about suicide?”
- Offer hope that help, alternatives, and resources are available. Encourage problem-solving and positive actions, but remember that a person caught up in an emotional crisis may have trouble thinking clearly. Encourage her to refrain from making any serious, irreversible decisions while in crisis.
- Get help. Contact resources that can lend qualified assistance. Let the troubled person know that you are so concerned that you would like to arrange help beyond that which you can offer.
- Get help, even if it means breaking a confidence. Saving a life takes priority over keeping a secret, and taking full responsibility for another person’s recovery is more than you should shoulder alone.
- Do not leave a suicidal person alone until help has been contacted.
Regardless of the nature of the crisis, if a person feels overwhelmed, without options, and/or is clinically depressed, there is danger that suicide may represent a solution to her. Because intense emotional distress can blind people to alternative solutions and available resources, suicide may appear to be the way out of an intolerable situation or unbearable pain. The tragedy is, of course, is that other solutions can alwaysbe created.
If You are Feeling Suicidal:
Remember that, although it can feel like it will never end, depression is not a permanent condition, and emotional pain can be survived. Take action now to get support for yourself, and help with your depression.
Numbers that Barnard students can call for immediate help are:
- Barnard Furman Counseling Center (212) 854-2092
- After-hours Psychological Emergency Line, (855) 622-1903
- If you live in a residence hall, your RA, GA, or area director knows how to help. You can get the number for the Graduate Assistant On Call at the front desk of your residence hall.
- Barnard Primary Care Health Services Clinician-on-Call (855) 622-1903
- Barnard Security x4-3362
- CAVA ambulance service x4-5555
- Nightline x4-7777
Columbia University numbers include:
- Columbia Clinician-On-Call (212) 854-9797
- Columbia Counseling and Psychological Services (212) 854-2878
- Columbia Security (212) 854-5089
Other resources include New York City crisis intervention hotlines…
- The Samaritans 212-673-3000
…as well as the nearest hospital emergency room:
- St. Luke’s Hospital, corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 113th Street, (212) 523-3336
Other things that you can do over time to help yourself:
- Realize that suicidal thoughts are signals that you want your life to be different – not that you don't want life at all
- Understand that depression not only affects mood, it affects cognitive ability, making it more difficult to sort out your thoughts and come up with solutions. As you get help with your depression, you’ll be better able to think, concentrate, and see alternatives that aren’t visible to you now.
- Contact one of the resource numbers listed on this page to get help in making your life different
- Reach out to the safest person you can find – a friend, instructor, brother, sister, mother, father, clergy member, RA, GA, or area director. Let the person know how you're feeling and that you need to talk.
- Be sure you get plenty of rest. If you're having trouble sleeping, cut out coffee, soft drinks with caffeine, and tea. Take a warm shower or bath before going to bed. If noise bothers you, get soft earplugs from a pharmacy. Try listening to music, meditation or deep muscle relaxation.
- Avoid dangerous situations. Alcohol is very dangerous because it depresses your sense of control and confuses your judgment.
- Give yourself comfort -- a good book, music, a good meal
- Start writing down your thoughts and feelings in a private journal.
- Accept attention and support.
You can find more information visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention