On Tuesday, April 23, a deceased student was found in his room—an apparent suicide. Many of us are deeply saddened and in shock over this loss. This article discusses the range of emotional reactions we can have when such an event occurs, resources available to students to help one through this period, and how we can be of help to each other. A major part of this article focuses on how we can recognize and minimize the likelihood of someone who is deeply depressed killing themselves; what to watch for and what to say and do.
I need to stress the word minimize, since sometimes no matter what we do we cannot prevent the suicide from taking place; no matter how we try we can miss the warning signs, or in spite of our best efforts the suicide may still occur.
When a suicide does occur it can evoke a wide range of feelings including: grief/sadness, guilt, anxiety, anger, numbness, and no emotional reaction at all.
Any and all of these reactions can occur, and they are all equally “normal.” For some people, the emotions triggered by a suicide include a return of emotions experienced through past loses, or stir up one’s own feelings of depression. The most valuable supports at such times are each other; loved ones, friends, family etc. Just being there for each other, expressing feelings, sharing memories of the person who has died can be tremendously helpful.
If you find that your emotional reaction is disrupting your life and you need more than the support of friends and family, the Counseling Center is just one of the many supports available for students on campus. We are located on the 4th level of Academy Hall (Suite 4100). Appointments can be made by calling extension 6479, or by just walking in. A staff member from the Counseling Center can also be reached after office hours by contacting Public Safety (276-6656) and asking to speak to the counselor on call. Other helping resources include class deans, chaplains, and residence hall staff.
Reducing the Risk of Suicide
Most of us have had, or will have, fleeting thoughts of death as a means of escaping from an unpleasant situation at some time in our lives. It is when the thoughts are more than just fleeting that there is need for concern.
Surveys have found that as many as 10–11% of college students have seriously considered attempting suicide during the preceding year.
Many bouts of depression are moderately short lived and if the person can be helped through the episode they have a good chance of recovery. We are talking here of severe depression, not the transient feeling of sadness all of us experience from time to time.
Some of the warning signs of suicide include the following (from Mayo Clinic):
-Talking about suicide (e.g. “I’m going to kill myself,” “I wish I was dead.” or “I wish I hadn’t been born”
-Getting the means to commit suicide
-Withdrawing from social contact and wanting to be alone
-Having mood swings such as being emotionally high one day and deeply discouraged the next
-Being preoccupied with death, dying, or violence
-Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation
-Increased use of alcohol or drugs
-Changing normal routines such as eating or sleeping patterns
-Doing risky or self-destructive things such as using drugs or driving recklessly
-Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order when there is no other logical explanation for why this is being done
-Saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again
-Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated, particularly when experiencing some of the above warning signs
What to Say or Do
Those at risk of suicide are feeling depressed, hopeless, and isolated. You can help someone break this pattern by approaching them with a show of genuine concern. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been feeling down for a while. I’m concerned about you. Is there anything I can do to help?” If they dismiss your impression as being inaccurate, just respond with something like, “Good, I’m glad you’re okay. If there ever is something upsetting you, I’m around if you need me.” Just knowing that someone cares can make all the difference.
If they do admit to feeling depressed don’t be afraid to ask “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” The more specific a plan one has for suicide, the higher the risk. Contrary to what many people believe, you will not be putting the idea of suicide into the person’s head or in any way be increasing the risk of suicide.
If the person does sound like they are considering suicide, the first thing to do is just listen, encouraging the person to express their feelings. It is important to acknowledge your understanding of their feelings. Don’t try to minimize it by voicing platitudes such as “Things will get better,” “Look at the bright side,” “You have so much to live for.” Such statements just will make the person feel like you haven’t understood what they are experiencing, which will add to their feeling of isolation. Try, instead, to put into your own words what you hear them saying about how they feel (i.e. “You’re saying it hurts so badly you’d rather not wake up in the morning,” et cetera).
Remove or get them to give up anything that could be immediately lethal. This will reduce the likelihood of an impulsive suicidal act, and communicates your concern and willingness to intervene.
If you find the person has a timetable or a plan, take it seriously. Don’t leave them alone, or be
brushed off by “I’m okay now.”
Keep the person talking about what is bothering them and direct them towards getting professional help right away. If the person is a Rensselaer student, have them call the Counseling Center (276-6479), or call our office yourself. Someone can be reached from the Counseling Center 24 hours a day by calling public safety at
276-6656. If it is during office hours, walk the student over to us. If the person is not a Rensselaer student, contact someone in their community (emergency mental health line, family, clergy, doctor). It is better to risk the person being angry at you for violating a confidence, than to have the person kill themselves.
Screenings for Depression
The Counseling Center web site (http://studenthealth.rpi.edu/) contains self- administered mental health screening surveys for depression, alcohol, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
Depression is not the only issue college students deal with. Stress, academic issues, relationships, and anxiety are just a few of the variety of college-related issues. If you would like to make an appointment to talk about any mental health issue, please give us a call.