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Warning Signs for College Suicides

personFor parents and friends the unthinkable nightmare is the intentional taking of life by a loved one. According to a new report, suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students, only surpassed by car accidents.

Sadly, mental illness among young adults often goes undiagnosed.

In response to these observations, a psychiatrist and an authority on suicide at Columbia University Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital offers parents and students advice on how to spot and address potentially suicidal behavior.

“College can be a difficult transition, with new independence, responsibilities and expectations arriving just as a student’s previous support system of family and friends are often not readily available.

“To add to the problem, the late teen years are often when biologically-based illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder, begin to manifest themselves. And students, who are new at asserting and managing their independence, can be especially reluctant to seek out help,” says Dr. David Kahn at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

“While the warning signs of mental illness can be difficult to spot in the context of college where unusual sleeping patterns, experimental ‘phases,’ drug taking and binge drinking are common, there are several behaviors that should indicate that intervention is necessary,” adds Dr. Kelly Posner, a leading expert in suicide research who helps the FDA and CDC on suicidality issues.

Warning Signs

    • Any signs of depression, such as sad mood, reduced interest and enjoyment in life and a sense of hopelessness.
    • Withdrawing from friends and activities.
    • Talking about suicide. This may be stated directly — “I’m going to kill myself.” Or indirectly — “You would be better off without me,” “I wish I were not alive any more,” or “Soon you won’t have to worry about me anymore.” Eight of 10 suicides verbalize their intention to commit suicide.
    • Giving away possessions.
    • Abrupt change in personality and behavior — including appearing sad, anxious or hostile most of the time or displaying unusual calmness after a loss or period of depression.
    • Sudden drop in school performance.
    • Dwelling on an academic or relationship setback or other loss of prestige or physical health.

“Virtually all college students who take their own lives had a diagnosable, treatable mental illness. The issues that lead to suicide are usually temporary — sadly suicide is permanent. If treated, these students will receive the necessary tools to manage their depression and develop coping mechanisms later in adult life,” says Dr. Kahn. “When you suspect that someone might be considering suicide, trust your instincts and, as awkward as it might seem, reach out to them and ask them about their intentions. This is an important first step toward getting them the help they need.”

What to Do When You Suspect a Student Is Suicidal

    • Develop a relationship with them or strengthen your current relationship by being available to listen and talk. Show and say that you care about them.
    • Ask directly about suicide. You will not be “putting thoughts into the person’s head” or causing them distress — in fact, it’s the best thing you can do. Don’t act shocked or scared and don’t argue about morality of suicide.

Ask the following questions to assess their seriousness:

    o Are you thinking about hurting yourself or committing suicide?
    o When would you do it?
    o What would you do?
    o What method(s) would you use?
    o How available is this method to you?
    o Who can you turn to for help?
    o When are your family members home?

If you’ve determined that the situation is serious enough that they have a plan and means to execute the plan, do not leave the student alone unless you yourself are physically threatened. Call your college suicide hotline, security department or 911.

Finally, encourage the student to seek professional guidance. If they refuse help, contact someone in authority immediately — an angry friend is better than a dead one. Maintain contact with the student until help is secured.

“Almost half of all college students report being depressed at some time, and as many as 10 percent of all college students consider suicide in a given year. It is vitally important that young people, whether in college or not, understand that mental illness, including thoughts of suicide, is not something to be ashamed of and will not be penalized. Confidential treatment is available,” says Dr. Posner.

“Most people who have mental illness or depression are grossly undertreated and suffering silently. The most helpful thing one can do, which truly can be lifesaving, is to facilitate treatment.”

Source: Columbia University

Warning Signs for College Suicides

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Warning Signs for College Suicides. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.