Every college student should know what to watch for and how to get help
Robin Williams’s suicide was hard on everyone. In the weeks after his tragic death, the end of a long and heroic struggle with mental illness, one of my friends reached out to me to express her own thoughts about self-harm. She was not the type of person I would ever have thought was struggling with depression—an attractive, academically accomplished college student who seemed to have everything going for her.
And that’s just the point: mental illness can affect anyone, anywhere, at any time. It’s not a choice, any more than coming down with a cold or finding out you have cancer is a choice. Just like with colds and cancer, there are preventative measures that you can take to try to preserve your mental well-being. Eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep have all been correlated with improved mental health. Even a diagnosis of serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression—can be managed with medication and therapy. Many people who have mental illness lead happy, productive lives.
But the fact that serious mental illness is a big risk factor for suicide cannot be ignored, especially considering that many cases are first diagnosed during the college years. September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. According to the International Association of Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15-29. In fact, each year, more than 800,000 people worldwide, including 48,000 in the U.S., die by suicide. Some studies have put the risk of suicide for people with serious mental illness at one in five. 1
What can we do to help others—or ourselves? A feeling of connectedness is the key. Following these steps can help you to build connectedness and prevent suicide.
1. Pay attention
If your friend tells you that he or she is thinking about suicide, take those comments seriously. Listen to their concerns, even if the conversation is difficult. Treatment Advocacy Center provides a valuable conversation guide, as well as advice for how to handle this type of situation. You can download a free copy of the PDF here.
But even more importantly, watch for signs. Most people who die by suicide do not leave a note. So it’s no surprise that someone who is serious about suicide may not talk to anyone about it. Some mental health advocates recommend Mental Health First Aid as a guideline to help people recognize the signs and provide positive support when someone is in crisis.
2. Know where to go for help—and be brave enough to ask
One study of suicide survivors and impulsiveness found that the length of time between the decision to die and the attempt to complete was as little as five minutes, occurring in a moment of “heightened vulnerability.” 2 If you or someone you know has thoughts of self-harm, call 911 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or both. It can be hard to ask for help. But your life—or your friend’s life—is worth it.
3. Follow through with comprehensive mental health care
Sometimes people who are contemplating suicide are initially hospitalized so that they can stabilize. As with any medical condition, once you are released, you need to follow your treatment plan. A good treatment plan will include the medical and community supports you need to help you recover and return to a full and happy life. You should be an active part of developing the plan and changing it when you need to.
4. Don’t blame yourself
Suicidal thoughts are not a sign of weakness; they are a sign of illness. It’s not your fault if your friend is contemplating or even completes suicide. In fact, there’s an all-too-common misconception that people who complete suicide are selfish, which Dr. Thomas Joiner, a national expert on suicide prevention, explains is completely wrong; people who die by suicide often feel they are actually doing their friends and loved ones a favor. He writes in his book, Myths about Suicide, “To say that persons who die by suicide are lonely at the time of their deaths is a massive understatement. Loneliness, combined with alienation, isolation, rejection, and ostracism, is a better approximation.”
5. Watch your language
You may have noticed that I have not used the phrase “committed suicide” or “mentally ill person” in this article. That’s because I believe that the stigma attached to mental illness makes it difficult for many people to get the help they need when they need it. Stigma is a set of beliefs about the way a person is; some people still believe that mental illness does not exist, or that people are “choosing” to act rather than exhibiting behavioral symptoms.
Language can be a powerful weapon to fight stigma and to change the way we view people with mental illness. We would never say that a person with heart disease “committed heart failure,” nor would we describe someone who had cancer as a “cancerous person.” We should adopt similar person-centered language when we talk about mental illness and suicide.
Suicide is often the tragic result of a choice-stealing brain disease, not a “selfish” choice, or even necessarily a desire to end life. As National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel wrote about Robin William’s death, “In view of the challenges of managing multiple disorders—in this case addiction and depression—what makes the story of Robin Williams so remarkable is his many years of success as a comedic genius. This is like finding out that a world-class marathoner was battling congestive heart failure—an achievement that seems almost too much to believe.” 3
By listening and watching for the signs, asking for help, following through with treatment, avoiding self-blame, and fighting stigma, you can help yourself or your friend to recover from suicidal thoughts. Friends, loved ones, and your future self will thank you for it.
If you or a friend is thinking about suicide, there’s help! Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK.
On September 10, you can use this toolkit to participate in World Suicide Prevention Day and Suicide Prevention Week.