Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. A suicidal person may not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean that help isn’t wanted. Suicide may result from distorted rational thinking and decision-making, not from a lack of character or moral weakness. Suicidal persons tend to give clues to those around them. Approximately eighty percent of people who have attempted suicide discussed their intent to do so with someone around them. The initiation of a suicidal event is likely to be triggered by a major life stress such as a loss or threat of loss (e.g., death of family/friend, end of a significant relationship, being academically dismissed from school). Some of the high risk indicators of suicidal intent are suicidal thoughts; a negative perception of life; intense feelings of hopelessness and futility, particularly if accompanied by anxiety; feelings of alienation and isolation; the idea that death is an agent for the cessation of distress; a personal and/or family history of depression; a personal and/or family history of previous attempts; a history of substance abuse; and/or a history of self-damaging acts. The suicidal student who alerts someone is often intensely ambivalent about killing him/herself and usually is open to discussing his or her suicidal concerns with someone. Students who talk about or write a lot about death and dying, have a specific plan for killing themselves; have a means (such as medication, knives, or a gun); abuse alcohol and other substances; and tend to be socially isolated are considered at greater risk to make a lethal suicide attempt.
Imminent danger signs include highly disruptive behavior (hostility, aggression); inability to communicate clearly (disjointed thoughts, slurred speech; loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that are not there, beliefs or actions at odds with reality); overt suicidal thoughts and gestures (suicide is a current option); homicidal threats. In such cases, call 911 from campus and inform Counseling and Wellness Services, and then a supervisor or department head.
When you suspect a student is suicidal:
- When possible, see the student in private.
- Remain calm and in control of the situation.
- Be direct—ask if the student is suicidal, if she/he has a plan and if she/he has the means to carry out this plan. This exploration may actually decrease the impulse to commit suicide (at least temporarily as it relieves the pressure).
- Take the student seriously and acknowledge that the threat is a serious plea for help.
- Listen to the student and respond with concern and care.
- Reassure the student that you will help him/her reach a counselor.
- When possible, accompany the student to Counseling Services (Third Floor, Admin. Building Room 301).
- If the student is in immediate danger, call 911 .
- If it is after hours and the student is not in immediate danger, encourage the student to talk with a licensed DIAL Help counselor by phone (800)562-7622
- Seek consultation even if the student is not willing to go to counseling. Call Counseling Services (906) 487-2538.
- Minimize the situation or sound shocked by what they tell you. All threats need to be handled as potentially lethal.
- Argue with the student about the merits of living or moral aspects of suicide.
- Be afraid to ask the student about his/her intent and/or plans of suicide.
- Agree to be bound by confidentiality.
- Over commit yourself and not be able to deliver what you promised.
- Allow the student’s friends to take care of the student without getting a professional opinion.
This page was adapted with permission from material developed by the University of California, Santa Barbara.