According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadian youth aged 15 to 24. It is most often associated with a profound sense of hopelessness/helplessness and a strongly held conviction that suicide offers the only relief from intolerable psychological pain. Suicidal behaviour is often preceded by the appearance of suicidal ideation (thinking about killing oneself) and by suicidal planning (forming a specific plan or plans to kill oneself), and occasionally by rehearsal of the suicidal act.
A person may arrive at this state in a number of different ways. Some students who contemplate killing themselves have a mental illness and some do not. Some suicides appear to be carefully planned; others are impulsive. The common elements in suicidal behaviour are the presence of psychological pain, a sense of lack of control, a loss of hope, and the absence of a sense of a viable future.
Individuals are more at risk of suicide if they have made previous attempts or if there is a history of suicidality or major depression in their families. They are at more immediate risk if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or if they have a specific plan for suicide.
Possible warning signs of increased suicide risk
Most forms of mental illness are associated with an increased risk of suicide. Specific warning signs for increased suicide risk may include:
- Expressions (written or oral) of helplessness or hopelessness
- High levels of anxiety
- Expressions (written or oral) of very high levels of guilt, shame, or worthlessness
- Expression of a desire to die or to kill oneself
- “Cryptic" references to death or suicide (“the world would be better off without me")
- Mention of a plan to harm or kill oneself
People who contemplate suicide are often ambivalent about killing themselves and are willing to seek help through counselling if they are supported in doing so. Students who are feeling suicidal are often relieved when someone finally asks them, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?" They no longer have to struggle with their feelings alone. Asking them if they are suicidal will not “put the thought into their heads" or raise the risk of suicide. A friendly, non-judgmental inquiry can be beneficial in moments of crisis.
Some students who are severely depressed do not have the emotional energy to seek help and use cryptic messages to reach out (e.g., “I won't be bothering you much longer," “It'll all soon be over," or “Time is running out"). Whether the reference to suicide is direct or indirect, it is important to respond.
As indicated already, students who may be at increased risk of suicide should be directed to professional services for assistance. If you are uncertain about how to respond, you should contact campus counselling or health services for advice.