Speaking Out About Youth Suicide

alison_malmon_2_websiteAlison Malmon
Founder and executive director of Active Minds Inc.

Today we continue our five part series on youth suicide prevention. Guest perspectives come from National Network of Depression Centers and Active Minds Inc., as well as personal stories from both a peer and family member. In today’s post Alison Malmon writes about the role peers and others play in preventing youth suicide on college campuses.

Speaking Out About Youth Suicide

At first glance, the 1,100 backpacks spread out across the campus quad or in the student union look puzzling. Walking through them, you notice that most have stories attached. Some have pictures. Signs reading, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help” and “Stigma is shame, shame causes silence, silence hurts us all,” poke out among the packs. Students quietly mill around, picking up the bags and reading the stories.

At some point, it becomes clear: These aren’t just ordinary backpacks. They represent the number of college students who die by suicide each year.

This is what it’s like to experience Send Silence Packing, Active Minds’ traveling suicide prevention display currently touring campuses in the Midwest. The stunning visual depicts how many student lives are lost each year to suicide and gives important information to those on campus who most need it — students.

The statistics on college campus suicide are staggering, consider:

  • 1,100 students die by suicide each year
  • Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among students
  • Nearly one half of students say they felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function in the past school year
  • Roughly one in ten college students has considered suicide

It’s not enough to merely understand the statistics in order to prevent suicides on college campuses. We also need to understand the daily experiences of students who are struggling. Key in any campus suicide prevention effort is recognizing that college students turn to their friends for help before anyone else.

Research shows that two-thirds of all college students with suicidal ideation first report these feelings to a friend, roommate, or significant other. Because students spend the majority of their time in college surrounded by peers not just during weekdays, but also at night and on weekends, these peers are more likely to notice a change in their behavior or mood.

Students are more likely to talk to a friend before contacting the counseling center or reaching out to a parent or a professor. Fifty-two percent who confided in peers about their suicidal ideation reported the person was helpful or very helpful in their recovery. It’s pretty clear. Reaching out to students in distress isn’t enough. All students need the tools to safely and effectively help a peer that is struggling with suicidal ideation.

We need to educate the entire campus population.

This notion seems to be catching on. At more and more schools, we’re seeing mental health awareness included in freshman orientation. Resident Assistants are being trained in how to help students who are struggling. Our chapter at the University of Oregon is advocating to have mental health resource numbers printed on the back of every student I.D. There seems to be no limit to the creativity and innovation we find among our chapter members in finding ways to educate their peers about mental health and suicide.

Even so, we have much more work to do. Most of the students who approach a Send Silence Packing exhibit have no idea that suicide is so common on campuses. They aren’t sure what to say if a friend confides that they’re having suicidal thoughts. That’s OK. This is a scary subject to talk about. But it’s up to universities and colleges to start the conversation.

The answer to suicide prevention on our college campuses is simple: Involve the talented and intelligent students sitting in classrooms, eating in dining halls and sleeping in dorms. Talk to them. Teach them. Engage them. They are our best hope to truly send silence packing.

Your Turn

  • What would you want people to say to you if you were experiencing feelings of hopelessness?
  • How can campus administrators and college counseling centers create better awareness around the public health issue of student suicide?

Take the poll

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