Suicide Prevention 101: How to Handle Suicidal Ideation or Crisis

By: Jonathan Block

The new semester has started, and with it, stress and assignment deadlines for classes. Students this semester also have to contend with another factor, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to major economic repercussions and an increase in depression and anxiety for many.

September is Suicide Prevention Month. September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day and this week is National Suicide Prevention Week. In 2017, almost 45,000 lives were lost to suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now is a time to reflect on the impact suicide can have on graduate students and what actions can be taken if you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or tendencies.

Graduate education represents a stressful time for many students, likely because of the demands of school, having to balance one’s school, work, and personal life, relatively low pay during this training period, and sometimes uncertainty about the future.  A 2014 study of 301 graduate students found that 7.3 % of the sample reported thoughts of suicide, 2.3 % reported having plans for suicide, and 9.9 % had ever made a suicide attempt in their lifetime. A 2018 paper found that graduate students are six times more likely than the general public to experience depression and anxiety.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, one of the most important things to know is that help is available immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to be connected to a trained professional that will provide emotional support.  The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is also an important resource.

If a crisis is not imminent, it’s important to be aware of some of the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide and being prepared if you or someone you love finds themselves in the midst of a crisis. If someone starts using phrases such as “I wish I wasn’t here,” “Nothing matters,” or “I’d be better off dead,” it’s reason to pay attention as these thoughts or comments are known as suicidal ideation.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), here are some other warning signs someone may be contemplating suicide:

    • Increased alcohol and drug use
    • Aggressive behavior
    • Withdrawal from friends, family and community
    • Dramatic mood swings
    • Impulsive or reckless behavior, such as unsafe driving or engaging in unsafe sex

    If someone is exhibiting suicidal behavior, that is considered a psychiatric emergency. A mental health professional or 911 should be called immediately. NAMI lists such behaviors as the following:

    • Collecting and saving pills or buying a weapon
    • Giving away possessions
    • Tying up loose ends, like organizing personal papers or paying off debts
    • Saying goodbye to friends and family

    If you or someone you love is in the midst of a suicide crisis, there are steps to take to diffuse the situation. Time is of the essence as the situation needs to be dealt with quickly and effectively. NAMI, which created a guide on navigating a mental health crisis, suggests the following:

    • Talk openly and honestly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like: “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?”
    • Remove means such as guns, knives or stockpiled pills
    • Calmly ask simple and direct questions, like “Can I help you call your psychiatrist?”
    • If there are multiple people around, have one person speak at a time
    • Express support and concern
    • Don’t argue, threaten or raise your voice
    • Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong
    • If you’re nervous, try not to fidget or pace
    • Be patient

    Finally, it’s important to note that if you are struggling with a mental health issue, SPH has a student wellness counselor, Sherry Adams, who can provide help. She provides individual and group counseling session and can be reached at