The Suicidal Student
A suicidal person is usually intensely ambivalent about killing himself or herself, and often responds positively to assistance. Suicidal states are typically time-limited. High risk indicators include: feelings of hopelessness and futility; a severe loss or threat of loss; a detailed suicide plan; history of prior attempts; alcohol or other drug abuse; severe depression, and feelings of alienation and isolation from others. Suicidal students usually want to communicate their feelings and any opportunity to do so should be encouraged. Often there may be some ambiguity and you aren’t certain if the person is at risk for self-harm. When in doubt, refer the student to the Counseling Center and we will evaluate the level of risk.
If you observe the following warning signs that indicate suicidal risk, particularly in combination, communicate with a mental health professional or the police as soon as possible:
- Expression of desire to kill him/herself or wishing to be dead.
- Presence of a plan to harm self.
- Methods and means are available to carry out plan to harm self.
- Suicide plan is specific as to time, place; notes already written.
- High stress due to grief, illness, loss of new job, academic difficulty, etc.
- Symptoms of depression are present such as dramatic change in sleep or appetite; severe hopelessness or agitation; feelings of exhaustion, guilt/shame; loss of interest in school, work or sexual activities; deterioration in hygiene.
- Intoxication or drug abuse (including alcohol).
- Previous suicide attempt by the individual, a friend or family member.
- Isolation, loneliness, or lack of support.
- Withdrawal or agitation.
- Preparation to leave, giving away belongings, saying unusual “good-byes.”
- Secretive behavior.
- Major mood changes (e.g., elation of person who has been depressed).
- Indirect comments implying death is an option they are considering (e.g., person implies he/she may not be around in the future).
If you suspect a student may be suicidal, it is very important that a professional counselor is contacted – even if there is no intent for immediate self-harm. In addition to professional support, you can encourage the student to visit www.ulifeline.org, which provides information for people struggling with suicidality and others, supporting them through this difficult period.
- Taking the person seriously; 80% of suicides give some warning of their intent.
- Acknowledging that a threat of suicide (or attempt) is a plea for assistance.
- Asking the individual directly whether s/he is considering suicide (e.g., “You seem so upset and discouraged that I’m wondering if you are thinking of harming yourself? In what way?”).
- Being available to listen, to talk, to be concerned; but refer to the Counseling Center (206-543-1240) or the Hall Mental Health Center (206-543-5030) or, after hours, call the Seattle Crisis Line at 206-461-3222.
- Consulting with the above resources as necessary.
- Administering to yourself (self-care). Helping someone who is feeling suicidal is hard, demanding, and draining work. Don’t go it alone.
Less Helpful Responses
- Minimizing the situation or depth of feeling (e.g., “Oh, it will be much better tomorrow.”).
- Being afraid to ask the person if they are so depressed or sad that they want to hurt themselves or are considering taking their life.
- Overcommitting yourself and, therefore, being unable to deliver on what you promise.
- Ignoring your limitations (e.g., not consulting with available resources).
- Putting yourself in a compromising position of “promising” not to consult with others.