Preventing Suicide Among College Students


Published: October 7, 2010

Every year there are approximately 1,100 college suicides, including last week’s death of Jacob Miller, Fordham College at Rose Hill ’14.  In light of the number of recent college suicides that have captured national attention in the past few weeks, “prevention” has become a key word on university campuses while staff and students discuss what can be done to avoid such tragedies in the future. Not all cases are predictable, but there are some instances in which we can recognize and get help for our peers who appear to be struggling emotionally. Often, when students do not report a classmate they feel might be in emotional trouble, it is not out of indifference, but out of uncertainty as to how tell the difference between someone who is having a bad day and someone who is in trouble.

And if a classmate is in emotional trouble, often students are unaware of how to help.  For answers, we spoke with Bruce S. Sharkin, Ph.D., author of “College Students in Distress, A Resource Guide for Faculty, Staff, and Campus Community” and associate professor of counseling and psychological services at Kutztown University.

Observer: Are there any warning signs that students should look out for if they are concerned that a peer is suicidal?

Bruce Sharkin: Typically, students who are feeling suicidal will give some kind of indication. For example, they will make a comment in writing, like a text message or an e-mail or on Facebook. It could be blatant, where they’re saying they’re actually going to [commit suicide]. More commonly, students will say things like “I can’t handle life anymore” or “I just feel like giving up on everything.” The more specific the comments are, the higher the risk. Other signs would be if you notice a change in someone’s behavior: if they seem depressed, withdrawn, uncommunicative. This doesn’t always mean that the person’s suicidal, but those are good signs that something’s not right.

Observer: If a friend actually comes out and says that he or she is suicidal, what is the most helpful way to respond?

B.S.: I they give clear indications that they’re planning to [harm themselves], then you want to take action right away. If they’re willing, you just walk them to the counseling center and say, “My friend needs to see somebody right away.” If they don’t want to go or if it’s after hours, you would need to call either a crisis intervention number or [campus] security and they would come out and get the student.

Observer: If a student notices that another student might be in emotional trouble, what actions should he or she take?

B.S.: I always suggest, especially when it’s students [talking with] other students, you should ask them about it, even though it could bring up a lot of discomfort. If one of your friends said something that you thought was suicidal and you’re close enough to the person, [you could] say, “It sounds like you’re taking about suicide; is that true?” Just be very direct. If possible, inquire right away and don’t take anything lightly. Sometimes people will say things in a joking manner.  If so, make sure it’s a joke; don’t assume it is.

That’s the first part. The second part is, especially if they admit to having some thoughts or that they’re struggling, you want to try to find them professional help. That’s when you refer them to the counseling center on campus. It could be your best friend, and when you ask, “Have you thought about going to the counseling center?” if they say, “No, no, that’s not for me,” you should call the counseling center [anyway], lay out the situation and see if they can put you in touch with someone who will see the person immediately. You don’t want to take any chances. It’s better to err in the direction of overdoing it.

Observer: If a student reports another student’s behavior and wants to remain anonymous, how can he or she ensure that the other student won’t find out who reported it?

B.S.: If you were to call either someone in the counseling center or the dean of students and say, “Look, I’m nervous about this getting back to the person but I have some concerns,” someone is going to reach out to that student. I think they’ll protect your wish not to be known. If I had to call a student and say that another student contacted me, I would be a little vague and say, “Someone called and they didn’t say who they were, but they were worried about you.” Sometimes people can figure out who it was who reported them, and they might get mad that you said something, but usually after a while they’ll realize that you did it out of concern.

Observer: There are some situations in which a student’s friend might say, “I want to kill myself and I haven’t told anyone but you, so please keep it a secret.” What would your advice be for a student in that situation?

B.S.: You can’t agree to that. When someone comes in to see me as a professional, I say, “O.K., for the most part I can keep everything that you say to me confidential except…” and then I list the limitations. But that’s different from an informal thing where it’s a friend who says, “I want to tell you something but you have to swear not to tell anybody,” and you might not know what they’re going to tell you, so you agree. In that case, you’re going to have to break your promise.

It sounds odd to do this between students, but if someone approaches you with a secret you might say, “As long as you don’t tell me you’re going to kill yourself or somebody else, I’ll keep it a secret.” Otherwise, they’re going to feel betrayed that you went and reported them. But think about it—when students say things to other students, I know the cliché is to say that it’s a cry for help, but the fact that they’re leaking something out there implies that they want someone to help them.

Note: All of the procedures suggested in Sharkin’s interview are consistent with Fordham’s policy and resources.

Counseling Services
Phone: (212) 636-6225
Hours: Monday – Thursday
9 a.m. – 7 p.m. 

University Security (for after-hour emergencies)
Phone: (212) 646-6076
Hours: 24 hours a day 

National Suicide/Crisis Hotlines:
1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)