In a seminar that I teach, I opted to have someone from the counseling center come and facilitate a suicide prevention gatekeeper training session with my students. Within three weeks of that training, I had two students share with me that they had lost parents to suicide. Two students approached me separately to let me know that they themselves were in a mental health crisis, and subsequently I was able to walk them over to the counseling center. One student shared with me information about an attempt he had made years ago. And then during those three weeks one of my students was devastated by the loss of a very close friend to suicide. Six of my sixteen students were directly impacted by this issue. While this ratio is staggering, my guess is that there are many other students who have been touched by suicide and suffer in silence. Because the suicide prevention training cultivated a safe space to disclose this information, these students felt comfortable in sharing the stories and accepting help and support.
Whether students arrive on campus with pre-existing mental health conditions, or develop problems during the college years, prevention activities and support services can assist students in getting the help they need to stay in class. A common question posed by campuses, “Are today’s students really more disturbed than those in years past?” Silverman (2004) suggests that improved diagnosis, assessment, earlier intervention, and decreased stigma toward mental illness account for some of the increases. These factors may bring students to college who might not previously have considered postsecondary education as an option.
My student employee, Sandy, seemed different. I would never describe her as rowdy; however, she loved to joke and laugh with those in our office. She maintained her time well, taking pride in the work I assigned. When work became minimal, she opened her books to study for her next class. Lately, Sandy became withdrawn and quiet. She played on the computer, and I knew she wasn’t doing well in her classes.
I didn’t know what to do. Worrying in silence wasn’t helping, so I contacted the counseling office. I confided to them that I suspected total despondency on her part. I didn’t want her to do something to harm herself. They encouraged me to confront her with my concerns and convince her to talk with a counselor. I didn’t feel I possessed the conviction to lead her to safety. However, I did need to talk with her to find out what was happening in her life. I found the right opportunity one afternoon and shared my feelings of trepidation. Sandy immediately jumped at the chance to open up to me. This semester wasn’t going well. Her work load was overwhelming. She didn’t even want to be here. I encouraged her to take time off from work and get her life and feelings balanced. I told her about the counseling services available at the university. She wasn’t sure they could help and didn’t feel like anything would help. I told her the last thing I wanted was to cause her any more anxiety; she knew how much I cared. Sandy trusted me. I got up and said I was walking her over to the counseling office. I could see a positive change in her after only a week.
- Privacy and freedom of speech
Gary Pavela (author and legal expert on campus suicide issues) in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education stated, “Administrators need to give faculty members some immediate advice not to underreact. If you encounter a suicide reference in a paper, at a minimum you need to talk to the student and figure out what the student is alluding to. If there’s any concern, err on the side of overreaction, but by overreaction, I mean getting professional help to the student. It would be a mistake for the professor to say, ‘I will simply pay more attention to the student.’ Friendship alone will not address it.”
Haney, M. (2004). Ethical dilemma associated with self-disclosure in student writing. Teaching of Psychology, 31(3), 167-171.
- Holding students accountable and giving them the support/help they need
Pavela, G. (2007). Questions and Answers on College Student Suicide: A Law and Policy Perspective. College Administration Publications.
- Losing a student to suicide
- Professional development for faculty and staff
- On-going brief discussions in faculty forums and articles in faculty newsletters about risks, warning signs, limits of confidentiality, how to refer, and resources
- Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Training
For more information, please check out the following links.
- Mental Health Issues in Student Advising (National Academic Advising Association)
- Falling through the Cracks – Virginia Tech and the Restructuring of College Mental Health Services (New England Journal of Medicine)
- The Mental Health Needs of Today’s College Students: Challenges and Recommendations (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators)
- Promoting Mental Health and Preventing Suicide in College Settings (Suicide Prevention Resource Center)
- College Mental Health News (Villanova University)
- Suicide Prevention Resource Packages
Resources for survivors of suicide loss:
- SOS Handbook
- On-line resources including discussion boards