Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. A suicidal person may not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean 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 may give clues to those around them. However, national campus data indicate that approximately 80 percent of students who complete a suicide were not seeking services at the university counseling center on their campus, so connecting students to care is of utmost importance. The initiation of a suicidal event is likely to be triggered by a major life stressor, such as a loss or threat of loss—for example, the death of a family member or friend, the end of a significant relationship, or being academically dismissed from school.
High-risk indicators of suicidal intent include 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 suicide attempts; a history of substance abuse; and/or a history of self-damaging acts. A suicidal student who alerts someone is often intensely ambivalent about killing him/herself and usually is open to discussing his/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 of making a lethal suicide attempt.
Imminent danger signs include highly disruptive behavior, e.g., hostility or aggression; the inability to communicate clearly, e.g., disjointed thoughts or slurred speech; loss of contact with reality, e.g., seeing/hearing things that are not there or beliefs or actions at odds with reality; overt suicidal thoughts and gestures (indicating that suicide is a current option); and homicidal threats. In such cases, call 911 from campus and inform Counseling Services, 906-487-2538, and then a supervisor or department head.
If you suspect that 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 (Administration 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 trained Dial Help counselor by phone at 800-562-7622.
- Seek consultation even if the student is not willing to go to counseling. Call Counseling Services at 906-487-2538.
- Minimize the situation or sound shocked by what the student tells 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.
- Overcommit yourself—you may not be able to deliver what you promise.
- 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.