Content warning: This article is based on a workshop that discussed the topic of suicide and other mental health concerns at length. Because of the sensitive nature of these discussion points, reader discretion is advised.
On the evening of Wednesday, April 18, the Illinois Tech Student Health and Wellness Center (SHWC) hosted an open workshop on the topic of suicide awareness and prevention. Facilitated by Assistant Director and Staff Psychologist Christine Reh and Practicum Extern Rebecca Sewell, the workshop ran from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Perlstein Hall room 108 with the hopes of providing general information, tips, and guidelines for students to start the necessary conversations to shift the narrative and stigmas on suicide.
Sewell began the workshop by providing a dictionary understanding of suicidal thoughts as “thinking about or planning suicide [the taking of one’s own life] … from a detailed plan to a fleeting consideration.” Such thoughts are interpreted as “a sign of extreme distress.” From this definition, Sewell then presented the two types of suicidal ideation: active suicidal ideation (thoughts that are accompanied by a clear plan and intent to carry out one’s death) and passive suicidal ideation (a desire to die without a specific plan or intent). In addition, the topic of self-harm was introduced as “deliberate harm to oneself in a way that is impulsive and not intended to be lethal.”
Each of these three states are marked by different levels of distress and intention. For example, self-harm is not necessarily a suicide attempt. Oftentimes, it is used as an immediate physical means of coping with or relieving painful feelings. Among the many mental pathways that lead to self-harm, the desire to express feelings that are otherwise difficult to convey is just one example of the reason for self-harm.
However, the primary point that Reh and Sewell wanted to convey was the concept of a “baseline” and how to monitor an individual’s baseline. Every person has a mental and emotional baseline, where their default mood and emotions gravitate towards. Your baseline can be thought of as your normal self. It is when there is a noticeable change in a person’s baseline, such as the shift in suicidal ideation from passive to active, that action may need to be taken. Thus, understanding the baselines of the people around you will help you to better understand the possibility of suicide in those around you.
Sewell then presented some context to suicide and why awareness of it matters so much in the contemporary age. Statistically, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the second leading cause of death worldwide for those between 15-24 years of age, and occurs once every 40 seconds worldwide. Especially on college campuses, suicide is growing as a cause of death and cause for concern.
Risk factors for suicide include depression, mental disorders, substance abuse, chronic pain, prior history of suicide attempts, family history of mental disorder or suicide, family violence, presence of firearms in the household, recent release from prison or jail, and prolonged stress. There are numerous warning signs of suicide that can be directly observed, such as increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawal from family and friends, change in eating habits, changes in sleeping habits, the putting of one’s affairs in order, the giving away of prized possessions, and the acquisition of means for death (such as pills, a firearm, or rope). Within one’s mood, the feeling of unbearable pain, increased irritability and agitation, mood swings, loss of interest, and feelings of being alone are all common signs of possible suicide.
Once you understand an individual’s baseline and have noted possible suicidal ideation, what can you do next? Reh and Sewell presented an eight-step process to helping someone who is considering suicide. First, although it may be very difficult or awkward, it can make all the difference to ask the individual if suicide is being considered. Directly asking “are you thinking about killing yourself” or “do you have a plan to commit suicide” can yield the vital information needed to know if further action must be taken. The second step in this process is to keep the individual in question safe by reducing the access to any lethal items. Step three is to simply be there by offering empathy, listening, avoiding offering direct solutions, and validating the individual’s emotions. Step four is to connect the individual to resources for suicide prevention, which can be found at the end of this article. The fifth step is to stay connected by following up with the individual and stay in touch after resources are connected to. Step six can be especially vital at helping university administration: file an online incident report at iit.edu/incidentreport. Filing an incident report at this link, which can also be anonymous, will provide the SHWC with the information they need to build a case and reach out with assistance, if need be. Finally, steps seven and eight are to call the SHWC about the individual, and walk the individual to the SHWC, if need be.
It is important to note that the average Illinois Tech student is not a mental health professional. It is not your sole responsibility to completely solve the suicidal ideation of one of your friends or family members. You are very likely not equipped or trained to handle such a situation. However, by following the steps previously mentioned and having an awareness of how suicidal ideation can manifest can still make all the difference in connecting a troubled individual to the professional resources that can help and make a difference. While a suicidal individual cannot be forced to go to therapy, except in cases of imminent danger (either direct suicidal or homicidal intent), demonstrating concern and empathy (and possibly even examples of similar experiences) can eventually lead to the seeking of treatment.
Suicidal awareness is a vital first step in shifting the ongoing stigmas and narratives surrounding suicide. The taking of one’s own life is a very tragic event that can shake an entire community to its core. By increasing our awareness of how such thoughts manifest and what resources are available to us, we can eventually work to better equip ourselves to tackle this topic as one community. All Illinois Tech students have access to the Aetna Student Insurance Crisis line, regardless of their insurance status, at 877-351-7889. In addition, the SHWC can be found on the third floor of the IIT Tower, as well as via phone at 312-567-7550 and via email at [email protected]. During times of emergency, Illinois Tech Public Safety can be reached at 312-808-6363.