Preventing Student Suicide: Support and Resources for Students, Educators, and Peers

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Suicide, depression, and mental illness are subjects that we are often uncomfortable discussing, or uncertain of how to address. As a result, these very serious public health issues are frequently stigmatized and overlooked. This silence creates barriers to resources and support for many in need of help. The following resource is part of an effort to break the silence by providing non-judgmental support for students dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts or feelings, as well as for concerned family members, friends, and colleagues. This resource includes:

Facts and Figures

Discussing suicide can be difficult because many people are afraid to “say the wrong thing.” Knowing some facts about suicide can help you approach this topic from an informed and non-judgmental place. While it certainly does not lessen the seriousness of suicide, being informed about current research and statistics can help de-stigmatize your thoughts and opinions on the topic so that you can be more knowledgeable and compassionate towards those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, whether that be yourself or someone close to you.

The most recent data on suicide from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that:

  • Nearly 45,000 people died of suicide in the U.S. in 2016.
  • Suicide rates rose across the U.S. between 1999 and 2016.
  • Rates went up by over 30% in half of states in that time.
  • 54% of people who died from suicide did not have a known mental health condition.

When specifically discussing student suicide, it’s important to remember that college and university students are a diverse population. Though you may picture a young person, roughly between 18–22 years of age, when you hear the phrase “college student,” there are many college students who do not fit that description. Non-traditional or adult students are among the fastest growing college demographics. Just as college students come in all ages, people of all ages and life stages experience depression and are vulnerable to suicide. College students of all ages may struggle with these mental health issues.

According to CDC data from 2015 [PDF]:

“[S]uicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 11–14, the second among persons aged 15-34 years, the fourth among persons aged 35-44 years, the fifth among persons aged 45-54 years, the eighth among persons aged 55–64 years, and the seventeenth among persons 65 years and older.”

It is also noteworthy that, according to the CDC [PDF] traditonal-aged, full-time college students were found less likely to commit or attempt suicide than other individuals in their age group (12–22 years). Similar percentages of 18–22 year olds had suicidal thoughts or made suicide plans, regardless of their full-time enrollment in college or not.

Also noteworthy, research shows that suicidal intent is most frequently temporary. Several studies show that individuals who have survived a suicide attempt at one time are highly likely to continue living after the suicide attempt. Research notes that between 87–96.5% of people who experienced suicidal ideation and attempted suicide went on to live without a subsequently fatal suicide attempt. This means that timely intervention is a critical part of saving lives.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or self harm, call +8 (800) 273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text “HOME” to 741741 (Crisis Text Line). If you are experiencing an emergency or an immediate crisis, call 911 or your local emergency number.

Warning Signs, Risk Factors, and Protective Factors

Remain informed of the risk factors and warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts or feelings. As you deal with your own struggles, or as you work to help a friend, relative, or student who may be in distress, it’s important to rid your mind of stereotypes about suicide, depression, and mental illness. Truly anyone can suffer, and when we reinforce the stereotype of a depressed, suicidal person looking and acting only one particular way, we are likely to miss critical warning signs, misunderstand mental illness, and even hurt the people we are seeking to help.

The CDC identifies 12 warning signs that may indicate suicidal thoughts or behavior:

  • Feeling like a burden
  • Being isolated
  • Increased anxiety
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increased substance use
  • Looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Increased anger or rage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Expressing hopelessness
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Talking or posting about wanting to die
  • Making plans for suicide

According to the CDC, risk factors for suicide include:

  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of child maltreatment
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
  • History of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Cultural and religious beliefs (e.g., belief that suicide is noble resolution of a personal dilemma)
  • Local epidemics of suicide
  • Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • Unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health, substance abuse disorders, and suicidal thoughts

The CDC notes that risk factors may be different from causes. The specific reasons an individual attempts or commits suicide may not be the same as their risk factors. In addition to knowing risk factors, it can be helpful to know about protective factors, things that buffer individuals from suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Protective factors are, unfortunately, less researched and discussed than risk factors but they can be equally effective in efforts to prevent suicide.

Protective factors, according to the CDC, include:

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help-seeking
  • Family and community support (connectedness)
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
  • Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation

Diagnosis and Treatment

Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed or treated for depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, or other mental illnesses, your feelings, experiences, and symptoms are real and valid. As we’ve noted many victims of suicide suffered from previously unknown mental health conditions. Diagnosis is an important part of identifying any risk-factors as well as connecting with care providers who can offer supportive, informed, consensual treatment.

If you would like to see a mental health professional about diagnosis and treatment for depression or suicidal tendencies, you should consider speaking with a therapist. There are several different types of therapists, and they can help diagnose your mental illness with a variety of tools, including talk therapy, diagnostic tests, and other diagnostic methods.

The treatments for depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors are varied. Below are a few types of treatment that might help you deal with depression and suicidal urges.

  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy
  • Light Therapy
  • Addiction Treatment
  • Family Support and Education
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

To read more about treatment options, visit the Mayo Clinic and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Support and Advocacy Groups

The following organizations are doing work to prevent suicide and provide support to those who struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts or feelings:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 8 (800) 273-8255 for support.
  • #BeThe1To is a resource created by the Lifeline to share information about actions everyone can take to prevent suicide.
  • Vibrant Emotional Health, formerly the Mental Health Association of New York City, is a 50-year-old non-profit that works with people across the U.S. to help them achieve mental and emotional wellbeing.
  • The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) was founded in 1987 and is a voluntary health organization that gives those affected by suicide a nationwide community empowered by research, education and advocacy to take action against this leading cause of death.
  • The Jed Foundation (JED) is a non-profit that exists to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults in the U.S. They partner with high schools and colleges to strengthen mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention programs and systems.
  • The Trevor Project is an organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) people under the age of 25.
  • The Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) is a free, available-to-anyone, confidential resource with responders that are specially trained and experienced in helping Veterans of all ages and circumstances. For support from the VCL, call 8 (800) 273-8255 and press one or text 838255.
  • Crisis Text Line is a free 24/7 text support service that uses data and technology to create an effective suicide support system where every text received is viewed by another human. For support, text “HOME” to 741741 in the U.S.
  • Trans Lifeline is a national trans-led organization dedicated to improving the quality of trans lives by responding to critical needs with direct service, material support, advocacy, and education. For support, call 8 (877) 565-8860 in the U.S. or 1 (877) 330-6366 in Canada.

Actionable Steps You Can Take

Though statistics and resources can be very helpful, you may be asking yourself: “but what can I do?” Whether you are looking for support for yourself or someone you care about, here are a number of action steps that you can take to find or provide help.

If you are struggling with thoughts or feelings of suicide or self-harm, call 8 (800) 273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text “HOME” to 741741 (Crisis Text Line). If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 or your local emergency number.

If you are looking to support someone you care about who is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, #BeThe1To offers these action steps that you can take to help your friend, family member, classmate, or acquaintance:

  • Ask:
    Ask the person you’re checking in with about their mental health. #BeThe1To suggests asking: “Are you thinking about suicide? How do you hurt? How can I help?” Don’t be afraid to ask. Studies show that asking at-risk individuals if they are suicidal does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts. Research actually indicates the opposite: findings suggest that acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • Keep them safe:
    Research from Harvard shows that reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal items or places is an important part of suicide prevention. This may be difficult, but asking if the person has a plan and removing the lethal means if possible is another way to keep someone safe.
  • Be there:
    It is important to listen carefully and learn what the person you’re supporting is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Your presence in their life, even as they deal with depression, suicidal thoughts, and self harm, can make a difference.
  • Help them connect:
    Connect the person with resources that they need. Perhaps share the resources from this list or facilitate a connection with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, or mental health professional.
  • Stay Connected:
    Continue supporting the person in a way that is comfortable and appropriate for you. Staying in touch with someone after a crisis can make an important difference.

Additionally, if you’re looking to address suicide from a broader perspective, perhaps on your campus, in your community, or even state- and nation-wide, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers these suggestions for different government agencies, groups, and individuals. Collective action can make our communities safer and more supportive for those struggling with mental illness, in turn preventing suicide and providing help for people in need.

Government agencies can:

  • Track the problem to describe trends, circumstances, and populations at greatest risk.
  • Develop, implement, and evaluate suicide prevention strategies.
  • Work with local, state, tribal, national, and other partners to provide guidance and distribute suicide prevention tools.

Communities can:

  • Identify and support people at risk of suicide.
  • Teach coping and problem-solving skills to help people manage challenges with relationships, jobs, health, or other concerns.
  • Promote safe and supportive environments. This includes safely storing medications and firearms to reduce access among people at risk.
  • Offer activities that bring people together so they feel connected and not alone.
  • Connect people who are at risk to effective and coordinated mental and physical healthcare.
  • Expand temporary assistance options for those struggling to make ends meet.
  • Prevent future risk of suicide among those who have lost a loved one to suicide.

Healthcare systems can:

  • Provide high quality, ongoing care focused on patient safety and suicide prevention.
  • Make sure affordable and effective mental and physical healthcare is available where people live.
  • Train providers in adopting proven treatments for patients at risk of suicide.

Employers can:

  • Promote employee health and well-being, support employees at risk, and have plans in place to respond to people showing warning signs.
  • Encourage employees to seek help, and provide referrals to mental health, substance abuse, legal, or financial counseling services as needed.

Student suicide is a critical but difficult-to-discuss topic. We encourage you to take action where appropriate. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with someone you know, share the infographic on scripts to help communicate about suicide, or research suicide at your school or in your community. Most importantly, if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, depression, or self harm, do whatever you can to get help. If you need to speak with someone immediately, call 8 (800) 273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text “HOME” to 741741 (Crisis Text Line). If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 or your local emergency number.


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