September 5–11 is National Suicide Prevention Week. This seems like a good time to share factual information about suicide, as well as discussing how each of us can recognize when someone is at risk for suicide, and become familiar with the best ways to react to someone at risk. We will also touch on the ways the suicide of someone we know, particularly someone we are close to, can affect us.
In 2014, the latest year for which statistics for the United States are available, a person died by suicide every 12.3 minutes, which was the 10th leading cause of death in this country. For those in the age range of 15 to 24, it was the third leading cause, only trailing accidents and homicide.
When we discuss “preventing” suicide, I always stress the word “minimize,” since sometimes no matter what we do we cannot prevent the suicide from taking place; no matter how hard we try, we can miss the warning signs, or, in spite of our best efforts, the suicide may still occur.
Most of us have had, or will have, fleeting thoughts of death as a means of escaping from an unpleasant situation at some point in our lives. It is when the thoughts are more than just fleeting that there is a need for concern.
Surveys have found that as many as 10 to 11 percent 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. Here we are talking 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 according to Mayo Clinic: talking about suicide, “I’m going to kill myself,” “I wish I were 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; and developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated, particularly when experiencing some of the above warning signs.
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—just by talking to them.
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 what they’re going through by voicing platitudes such as “things will get better,” “look at the bright side,” “you have so much to live for.” Such statements will make the person feel that 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”).
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 (518-276-6479), or call our office yourself. Someone can be reached from the Counseling Center 24 hours a day by calling the Department of Public Safety at 518-276-6656. 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.
When a suicide does occur, it can evoke a wide range of feelings, including grief/sadness, guilt, anxiety, anger, numbness, or even 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 losses, 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, and 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 fourth level of Academy Hall (Suite 4100). Appointments can be made by calling ext. 6479 or walking in. A staff member from the Counseling Center can also be reached after office hours by contacting Public Safety (6656) and asking to speak to the counselor on call. Other helping resources include class deans, chaplains, and residence hall staff.
The Counseling Center website (http://studenthealth.rpi.edu) contains self-administered mental health screening surveys for depression, alcohol, bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. To find these self-evaluators, use the left menu to navigate to the “On-line Resource Page” of “Counseling Services.” In the list of resources, Ulifeline and Stop a Suicide Today have screening surveys available.
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.
In addition to the above, you can help those who work to prevent suicide, such as The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, by participating in fundraising community walks. Our area will have a community walk later this month, on September 25 (Capital Region Walk for RITA). I have organized a team to walk that day, as I have done for the past few years. If any of you would like to participate in the walk, you are welcome to join our team: Jonathan Starfish. Just email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will give you more information, including how to join the team and register for the walk.
Joe Albert, Ph.D.
Psychologist, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institue
Joseph Albert, Ph.D., (Dr. Joe) received his B.A. in psychology from Antioch College (’61) and his MA (’66) and PhD (’69) in Clinical Psychology from the University of Illinois. Joe, who has been licensed as a psychologist since 1971, also has an active private practice.