Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notes on the Matter of Suicide

Recent tragedies which have captivated national attention have raised both awareness and anxiety regarding college student suicide.  Though the reason for heightened awareness is of course unfortunate, the awareness is a positive development.  But the anxiety may or may not be, depending on what one does about it.

If the anxiety translates to knee-jerk reactions in policy and procedure, and in campus-wide interventions, we may not only be ineffective, we may actually unwittingly contribute to the problem.  Here's how.

Research shows that suicide prevalence rates in higher education settings is 4.3 per 100,000*.  This is in contrast to the same rates for same-age non-college peers, which fall between 11.0 and 14.0 per 100,000 according to the CDC and its data for states.  While any loss of life is a tragedy and deserving of prevention efforts, we can conclude that simply being in college offers some protection against suicide.

So one thing we could do to prevent suicide is make it easier for young adults to have dreams (thereby projecting into the future, a major protective factor as you will see below) and attend, stay in, and graduate from college.  Reflexively reacting to the fear of suicide may lead us to respond to less-than-honorable vendors who are hawking suicide reduction wares in higher education and other settings.  (Please note here that some of these may have merit, and some may not.)  In a setting in which the base rate is already considerably lower than that of the surrounding community, and depending on its features, such programs may unintentionally create an ecology of threat, making it appear that it is a larger problem than it truly is.  To the despairing, this may have the most unfortunate outcome of making it appear to be a viable option that others nearby are considering and acting upon.

Questions to ask such vendors are: What rate is your program designed to address?, and What rate will be the outcome of your program?

Surprising as it may seem, researchers are only now investigating motives for suicide among students, the "why" of suicide.  Research to date has focused largely on demographic factors, or the "who" of suicide.  A recent study tells us rather affirmatively where we might focus our attention.  The authors state it is time to move beyond "one size fits all approaches", and strongly indicate that hopelessness and overwhelming emotional pain are the two internal motivational risk factors most associated with suicide.

Campuses would do well, then, to focus on community interventions which promote hope and future orientation toward maximizing and manifesting student gifts, talents, and dreams.  It is important that students feel they belong, that their identity matters and is wanted and needed by others.  They would also do well to promote the adequate funding of mental health resources, so that those in unbearable pain have a place to go for help.  To date, most of the vendors described above appear to focus on identifying those in pain, not their ultimate assistance.  Most college counseling centers can already tell you how to identify those in distress, and their perspectives are based in local experience and not the marketing of a product.  Listen to what these professionals have to say, then make it possible for the suffering to be assisted by them.

*Schwartz, A. J. (2011). Rate, relative risk and method of suicide by students at four-year colleges and universities in the United States, 2004-05 through 2008-09. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior; 41(4), 353-371.