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Suicide intervention saves lives

Suicide is a topic shrouded in stigma and shame, yet according to data gathered by RIC’s Counseling Center, more than half of all college students contemplate suicide at one point in their college career. It is the second leading cause of death among college students after accidents, reports the Center.

Tom Lavin, director of RIC’s Counseling Center, is hoping to remove the stigma by educating the campus community through a series of suicide intervention seminars held on March 9, 11 and 17. Lavin and staff counselors Denise DeSesa-Smith, Saeromi Kim and Janet Park led the sessions.

One of the first questions most people ask is what drives a student to commit suicide. RIC’s counselors cited a number of reasons.

“Transitioning to college is very difficult for young people,” said Lavin. “For the first time, 18- and 19-year-olds are independently managing their own lives, yet their brains have not fully matured. They aren’t able to regulate and manage stress. Brain studies have found that the brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s.”

Brain maturation also affects a young person’s ability to think ahead and envision future consequences, said Park. “People 15 to 25 years of age find it very difficult to see the future, to see what comes next,” she said. “At that age, they have a very limited view of what is possible, and this can bring on a kind of desperation.”

Biological factors coincide with environmental factors, Lavin said, “RIC has had few reported cases of suicide, due to the fact that 90 percent of RIC’s students are commuters still living at home with their family.”

Psychological factors are determinants as well. Mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, begin to emerge at age 18 or 19, said Lavin.

Social and academic pressures also factor in, said Kim, “The social structure of college life may make a student feel like they can’t connect with anyone, that they have no one to talk to. They may also feel academic pressure to make something of their life.”

All these factors are heightened by the abuse of alcohol and drugs, Kim said. According to data collected by the Counseling Center, 30 to 40 percent of suicides involve the use of alcohol or drugs.

“Drugs and alcohol not only increase feelings of depression,” Kim said, “they also allow the user to release inhibitions.”

The difficulty for the college community is that these students are often unwilling to connect with potential helpers.

“Depressed students rarely seek counseling or treatment,” Kim said. “More often than not, they will confide in a peer before they confide in a counselor. Therefore, their peers become extremely important in intervention. Engaged listening by a peer who cares can make a difference.”

RIC’s counselors are urging the entire campus community get involved in intervention. They ask that you look and listen for the following signs when engaged with a deeply depressed student:

Listen for direct verbal statements, such as, “I wish I was dead.” Listen for indirect verbal clues, such as, “People would be better off without me” or “I just want out.” And look for behavioral clues, such as drastic changes in behavior and personality, isolating from friends, loss of interest in personal appearance, loss of appetite and sleep, taking unnecessary risks and increasing the use of drugs or alcohol.

RIC’s counselors also provided these intervention strategies:

• FIRST, ask the person directly if they are having thoughts of suicide.
• SECOND, persuade them to stay alive. Say, “I want you to live.”
• FINALLY, refer them to a professional. Call for help or take them directly to someone who can help. Try not to leave them alone until you can get help.

At the conclusion of these seminars, Lavin expressed hope in continued intervention education and training at RIC, particularly among student groups and organizations.

“It’s going to take more than the Counseling Center to reach students in crisis,” he said. “It’s going to take a community of student peers, faculty and administration. It’s going to take a village. Intervention – it has been proven – saves lives.”

For more information, contact the RIC Counseling Center at (401) 456-8094.