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Suicide Prevention: Helping a Friend

Why would someone want to hurt themselves?

The college years represent a major transition period. You may be living away from home for the first time. However, the safety nets that can protect you at home may not exist at college. It is easier for problems to go unnoticed away from the eyes of parents, old friends, and high school teachers. At college, you may be faced with opportunities to experiment with drugs or alcohol for the first time.

Why would someone want to die? Sometimes people want to die because they are suffering from depression or other mental health issues—and college students may neglect to take medication prescribed for depression, hyperactivity, or other problems. Mental illness can cause so much emotional pain and anguish that it might prevent you from rationally considering other solutions to problems.

While you may not be able to solve these problems for a friend or classmate, you may be able to help the person find help. And the first step in doing so is recognizing the warning signs that someone may be at risk of suicide.

Recognizing risk factors and warning signs

As a college student, you and your friends have your own culture and language. You may know your college friends better than their own parents do. And you may be able to tell that something is wrong with one of your classmates when others can't. You can use your insights to help your friends and classmates find help when they are having problems.

Risk factors

Some people may be more at risk for suicide than others. 

  • Being in an abusive relationship. Any kind of abuse, including intimate partner violence, can lead to suicide.  If a friend has unexplained bruises or other injuries that they refuse to discuss, you may have cause to worry.
  • Having an eating disorder. An unexplained, dramatic change in weight may indicate that something is wrong.
  • Experiencing difficulty in adjusting to sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people have higher suicide attempt rates than their straight peers.
  • Depression. Depression is a mental illness that can increase a person's risk of suicide.

Warning signs

While there is no foolproof method of determining that someone is thinking of hurting themselves, the following signs might indicate that someone is considering suicide:

  • A sudden decline in school performance. Good students who suddenly start ignoring assignments and cutting classes may be experiencing a mental health issue, potentially putting them at risk of suicide.
  • A fixation with death or violence. You may have cause for concern if a friend develops an unusual interest in death or violence, expressed through writing or artwork, an obsession with violent media (i.e., movie and music), or a fascination with weapons.
  • Unhealthy peer relationships. Students who don't have friends, or suddenly reject their friends, may be at risk. A friend who suddenly rejects you, claiming, "You just don't understand me any more," may be at risk.
  • Violent mood swings or a sudden change in personality. Friends who become sullen, withdrawn, or constantly angry may have a mental health issue.

Warning signs of suicide demand that action right away

  • Announcing that the person has made a plan to kill themselves
  • Talking or writing about suicide or death
  • Saying things like:
    • I wish I were dead.
    • I'm going to end it all.
    • You will be better off without me.
    • What's the point of living?
    • Soon you won't have to worry about me.
    • Who cares if I'm dead, anyway?
  • Staying by themselves rather than hanging out with friends
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Neglecting their appearance and hygiene
  • Obtaining a weapon or other things that they could use to hurt themselves (such as prescription medications)

Again, there is no foolproof way of knowing for sure that a friend is considering suicide. But even if they’re not, these warning signs can mean that your friend has other serious mental health issues. By taking action, you can help that person become happier and healthier. 

What to do

It’s hard to know what to do when you suspect a friend is suicidal.  If your friend expresses suicidal thoughts or intent, he or she should speak to a mental health specialist right away.  If you are not sure what to do, contact the
24-Hour Crisis Line (King County Crisis Clinic) at 866-427-4747 (866-4-CRISIS). This service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Here are some ways to be helpful:

  • Listen and allow your friend to express their feelings
  • Don’t lecture your friend about what you think they should do
  • Let them know you are available and support them no matter what
  • Don’t dare your friend to kill themselves
  • Don’t act like you’re shocked
  • Don’t make it a secret: Get support from crisis intervention specialists right away
  • Remove the means of suicide, like guns or pills

Resources

If you need help now

If there is a life-threatening emergency, call 911 immediately

Mental Health Clinic (Hall Health) (206) 583-1551 Monday through Friday from 9:00am-4:30pm

UW Counseling Center (206) 543-1240 Monday through Friday 8am-5pm

24-Hour Crisis Line (King County Crisis Clinic) 866-427-4747 (866-4-CRISIS) Available 24 hours a day 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK (8255) Available 24 hours a day

Online resources just for college students

Go Ask Alice! is a web-based anonymous health question-and-answer service produced by Alice!, Columbia University's Health Education Program.

Samaritans is an organization based in the United Kingdom that offers 24-hour, confidential emotional support to people, no matter where they live, who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those feelings that may lead to suicide. The Samaritans operate a free and confidential e-mail service, which generally responds to your e-mail within 24 hours.

Ulifeline.org is a web-based resource created by the Jed Foundation to provide students with a non-threatening and supportive link to their college's mental health center as well as important mental health information.

General resources on suicide and suicide prevention

Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides prevention support, training, and materials to strengthen suicide prevention efforts.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is dedicated to advancing our knowledge of suicide and our ability to prevent it.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) is located at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a valuable source of information and statistics about suicide, suicide risk, and suicide prevention.

Suicide Prevention Action Network USA is the nation's only suicide prevention organization dedicated to leveraging grassroots support among suicide survivors (those who have lost a loved one to suicide) and others to advance public policies that help prevent suicide.

Authored by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff

Reviewed by: Dr. Mary Bachhuber Watts, Associate Medical Director, February 2014