During September, the nation observes National Suicide Prevention Month, an annual campaign to inform and engage health professionals and the general public about suicide prevention and warning signs. To help raise awareness about the counseling resources available to UConn students, UConn Today discussed how to recognize and respond to suicide risk with Nina Rovinelli Heller, Zachs Professor and interim Dean of the School of Social Work, whose scholarship is in the areas of suicide and suicide prevention. As a consultant to the State of Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board, Heller led the development of the state suicide prevention plan and serves on several related statewide committees. She is also a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Taskforce on Clinical Workforce Preparedness, and is trained to perform psychological autopsies following completed suicides
Q- Although rare on campuses, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-aged young adults in the United States according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Can you begin by describing what leads students to consider suicide?
A – In fact, 18-24 year olds think about suicide more often than any other age group. The transition to college involves leaving home, negotiating increasing amounts of independence, academic stressors, and social challenges. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition and may be more susceptible to these stressors. Because of successful early interventions for high school students who experience mental health challenges, many more of these students are able to attend college, but may have increased difficulties with the transition from their usual support networks. Students may be more vulnerable following a break-up or when feeling socially isolated. Young adults who are suicidal may feel hopeless, overwhelmed, lonely, very sad, and/or overwhelmed by anxiety, though these symptoms may not always be evident to others. Risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use can exacerbate those feelings and place a student at higher risk for suicidal thoughts, behavior, and attempts.
Q- Individuals at risk for suicidal behavior most often will show signs of their distress. What should I do if someone tells me they are thinking about suicide?
A – First, take them seriously. While not all suicidal people disclose this to others, many do. Consider their willingness to tell you this, a “cry for help.” Encourage them to talk through their concerns and ask about current support networks. Notify your Resident Assistant of your concerns immediately. If the person is in acute stress, accompany them to the local hospital Emergency Department or UConn Counseling and Mental Health Services. If in immediate danger, phone 911.
Q- Why do I feel so uncomfortable at the thought of talking to someone who is thinking of killing themselves?
A – It is normal to feel uncomfortable hearing someone talk about wanting to kill themselves. Suicide has been a taboo subject, and many of us think erroneously that talking to someone about it will only make things worse. It usually takes a lot of courage for someone to talk about feeling suicidal, so the worst thing we can do is to deflect that talk or not take it seriously. People who are suicidal often want human connection and not to feel so all alone. You are not expected to “fix” someone’s suicidality, but to “be there” and to help get them to professionals who can help.
Q- Should all mentions of suicide be taken seriously? Is it true that some people who talk about suicide don’t really plan to do it?
A – Take all mentions of suicide seriously. Professionals are best equipped to determine the degree of danger associated with a person’s mention of suicide. Certainly, not all people who mention suicide will eventually make an attempt or a completed suicide. However, having had a prior suicide attempt is a very high risk factor for another and for death by suicide. Yes, some people do talk about suicide without making an attempt, but the very thought of killing oneself needs to be taken seriously and may be an indicator of an underlying mental health condition. There is particular cause for concern when the suicidal person has access to lethal means for suicide, which may include firearms and prescription, over-the-counter, and illicit drugs.
Q- What should I do if I encourage a suicidal person to get help but they refuse? If somebody really wants to end their life, is there anything I can do to stop them?
A – If someone is in acute, imminent danger, call 911. If the person is in crisis, you can call the UConn Counseling and Mental Health Services at 860-486-4705. It is better to overreact than to underreact. In the dormitory, you can also contact your Resident Assistant immediately who can help assess the situation and determine the right level of intervention. There is much we can do to prevent a person from ending their life. As the State of Connecticut Suicide Prevention 1 Word, 1 Voice, 1 Life Campaign stresses: be the 1 to start the conversation.
Q- With the combined stresses of work or school, relationships, financial pressures, and family problems, isn’t it normal to feel depressed sometimes? Do we all need mental health treatment?
A – Few of us can say that we’ve never had a day when we were discouraged or sad or lonely or overwhelmed. That is part of being human. We usually find our way through that with the help of friends and family, with time off, sports and hobbies, etc. However, when a person’s usual coping strategies fail to provide relief and the feelings of depression persist, there may be an underlying problem that can benefit from professional help. Mental health conditions are treatable, and there are many resources available in the University.
Q- What services and supports are there at UConn for students struggling with feelings of despair?
A – UConn has a wide range of information and resources for the people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and for those who care about them. The UConn Suicide Prevention Committee plans events throughout the year, trains first responders, and engages the campus in suicide prevention discussions. The UConn Counseling and Mental Health Services provide referral and therapy for people in crisis. Appointments can be scheduled at 860-486-4705. For those concerned with the wellbeing of others, UConn provides QPR training (Question, Persuade, Refer), a best-practices suicide prevention model. More information on available resources can be found at www.suicideprevention.uconn.edu/ and at www.counseling.uconn.edu/.
Q- What is the School of Social Work doing statewide to strengthen suicide prevention awareness?
A – The School of Social Work has been an active partner with the State of Connecticut Suicide Prevention Plan 2020 through faculty and student representation on the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board. I also authored the State of Connecticut Suicide Prevention Plan 2020, and served on the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board Armed Forces Committee. Robert Aseltine and Sara Wakai of the UConn Center for Public Health and Health Policy, serve as evaluators for Plan 2020. School of Social Work graduate students have taken part in suicide prevention trainings offered by the state advisory board, and we have offered continuing education courses on suicide prevention through our professional development office. Through the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board we have partnered with the state Department of Children and Families and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Administration on a range of prevention and training efforts.
UConn is observing Suicide Prevention Week from Sept. 27 through Oct. 3, with a kick-off event on Sept. 23, featuring speakers Kevin Briggs and Kevin Berthia, on “The Bridge Between Suicide and life.” Their talk begins at 7 p.m. at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. For other events, go to the Suicide Prevention Resources website.