The University Record, March 26, 2001

Reach out to depressed, stressed-out family members, colleagues, students

By Nancy L. Kuharevicz

How would you respond to a student or co-worker who told you he or she was contemplating suicide?

Suicides on campus are rare, says Todd Sevig, interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). When a suicide does occur, however, the whole community—friends, family, faculty, staff and students—feels the impact, often for years afterward. “It represents a tremendous loss, and the repercussions to family, friends and the community are widespread,” Sevig says.

Because talking about death is discouraged in U.S. culture, few of us are prepared to help family members, friends, colleagues or students who may be considering taking their own lives. “Talking about suicide makes us feel uncomfortable and awkward,” Sevig says. “It raises issues such as our feelings about death, the quality of life and the meaning of life.”

But talking—and more importantly, listening—are the first steps in intervening to prevent suicide, according to Sevig.

“Individuals in crisis have tunnel vision—they only see one way out,” Sevig says. “They usually are experiencing feelings of hopelessness and despair.”

If someone says, “I’ve never gone through such a rough time,” “I don’t think I can go on,” or makes other, similar statements, take it seriously as a potential suicide threat, Sevig advises. Communicate caring about the person’s well-being. Try to steer the conversation to the underlying issues that are fueling the individual’s despair, and discuss alternative ways to deal with the crisis or long-term situation.

“It’s a myth that talking about suicide will cause it,” Sevig says. “Talking about suicide makes it easier to deal with, not harder.”

In addition, suicidal individuals rarely are certain they want to kill themselves, Sevig notes. Reflect that ambivalence back to them; tell them you hear them saying they don’t really want to die.

After communicating concern, offer resources to get help. If the threat of suicide is imminent, call 911 or a suicide hot line, or take the individual to the psychiatric emergency room. If the danger is less immediate, provide phone numbers of counseling and suicide prevention programs that would be appropriate to the individual’s situation and urge the person to call or go to one, Sevig says.

In Washtenaw County, the 24-hour suicide hot line number is (734) 996-4747. U-M students can call CAPS, (734) 764-8312, while faculty and staff can call the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, (734) 936-8660 on Central Campus or (734) 936-6350 on the Medical Campus, for assistance. Community-based suicide prevention services include Dawn Farm, (734) 669-8265; Ozone House, (734) 662-2222; and SOS Community Crisis Center, (734) 485-3222.

Beyond providing resources and phone numbers for persons in crisis, let them know that what they’re experiencing is important, Sevig adds. Don’t minimize what they regard as a dire situation; acknowledge it as a serious issue that deserves attention. Try to remain calm and nonjudgmental while reminding them there are professionals who can help them.

Studies show that suicide rates decrease when individuals seek counseling. Even convincing someone to attend one session can help. “Our hope is that we can make it possible to intervene before it becomes a crisis,” Sevig says.

In the U.S. general population, the suicide rate is 15 in 100,000. Suicide comprises 1 percent of all deaths and is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, Sevig says.

At Big Ten universities, the rate is just 7.5 in 100,000, according to a 1980–90 study of students ages 17–49 conducted by Morton Silverman of the University of Chicago. The rate for students 17–19 was even lower, 3.4 in 100,000, according to the Silverman study.

It is not uncommon for individuals to have suicidal thoughts occasionally, Sevig stresses, but people seldom discuss these thoughts with others. When individuals do convey a sense of hopelessness, it is vital to let them know it is OK to talk about it and to ask for help. “To me, the goal is to make the suicide statistics zero out of 100,000,” Sevig says.

While there is no way to predict suicide, Sevig explains, there are recognized risk factors among suicidal individuals. These include mental illness and psychological problems, with depression being the main one; substance abuse; a family history of suicide attempts; a history of physical and/or sexual abuse; and impulsiveness. Counselors look for a combination of these, although some individuals with multiple risk factors never consider taking their own lives.

Warning signs of depression and suicidal risk

Psychological changes, such as irritability, anxiety, withdrawal, general sadness or hopelessness, and the inability or unwillingness to communicate with others.

Changes in daily patterns of living, such as inattention to work or homework, neglect of personal hygiene, and loss of ability to continue doing routine tasks.

Changes in physical health, such as decreased energy, excessive sleeping or insomnia, change in appetite, sudden weight loss, and psychosomatic complaints.

Changes in social behavior, such as marked inability to enjoy the usual social activities, sudden abuse of alcohol or drugs, violent outbursts, and detached or promiscuous sexual activities.

Personal crises, such as the death of someone close, rejection by a lover, being separated from loved ones and losing a job.

Persistent talk of death, or references to death or suicide. Preoccupation with death or feelings of despair are sometimes evident in writing or artwork.

Preparing for death by giving away valuable possessions, getting personal and legal affairs in order, making out a will, and saying goodbye to friends.

None of these signs alone necessarily indicates depression or suicidal potential, but an individual exhibiting several indicators, particularly if they mark a change from the person’s usual mood and style of coping, may be at increased risk.

Source: Counseling and Psychological Services