When a young person commits suicide, everybody who knows that person experiences a deep sense of shock. Fellow students, friends and relatives usually have no idea how desperate the suicide victim was. People ask themselves why it happened, was the person depressed, was there a tragedy in their life, what was going on for the person that they didn't notice. Later, people wonder if anything could have been done. This factsheet is written for students and parents so that they will know how to cope should they suspect somebody they know is contemplating suicide.

Vulnerability to suicide
The risk of suicide is increased in certain vulnerable people in particular circumstances. We are all familiar with stories of famous people such as Kurt Cobain and Michael Hutchence and the publicity surrounding such happenings. It is well documented that the number of calls to the Samaritans increases dramatically from fans of famous people following such unfortunate happenings. But quieter events such as bereavement, relationship break-up, problems regarding health, finance or employment, illness necessitating life changes, dependency on alcohol or drugs, or violence in the home, do not usually capture attention. These key events can be very significant factors in contributing to an increase in the susceptibility of people who are hopeless about their lives, their future and their ability to cope. As well as those who feel hopeless, people suffering from depression or who seem to be crying excessively, who express self-loathing or feelings of worthlessness, can become vulnerable to thoughts of suicide.

Cushioning in the form of an adequate network of support is especially important when a person is experiencing increased stress from the environment (ie: from people around them or from situations in which they find themselves.) The isolation felt from the lack of knowledge of support can tip an otherwise self-sufficient person into insecurity leading towards suicidal thoughts.

Impact on family
The impact of a suicide on a family is devastating. In the immediate aftermath of a suicide, and possibly for years afterwards, many people are unable to speak the word 'suicide'. The most common feelings experienced by the family following a suicide are: loneliness, guilt, shame and shock at the violence of the act, particularly if committed by a formerly gentle person.

What to look out for
So, what can we watch out for? We are inclined to notice if a person's normal pattern of behaviour has changed.

  • If a person is showing an unusual lack of energy or enthusiasm.
  • When a suicide is well planned, the person may put their affairs in order or give away valued posessions.
  • No longer caring about college, work or social activities.
  • Being withdrawn or finding it difficult to relate to others. Especially if coupled with talking about suicide, this should alert family or friends that concern is needed.
  • Dwelling on problems that have no solution, having no support in terms of a social network or friends, expressing feelings of failure, hopelessness or lack of self-esteem, having a belief or philosophy of hopelessness.

What can you do?
Become aware of those around you. Take the time to listen. Show them you want to understand. Show your concern and affection but do not try to cheer them up - reflect their feelings, however dark or morbid. It can make the difference between a person attempting suicide or seeking help. Help them to talk about their feelings and do not ask them about suicidal feelings. Do not avoid awkward subjects or questions.

Ask them have they tried to harm themselves. Ask have they a means to seriously harm or kill themselves. A YES answer to these questions raises a red flag. Seek professional medical or psychological help immediately.

Certain myths surrounding suicide bear examining. It is not true that people who think about suicide are unlikely to commit suicide. Nor is it true that suicidal people are insane, that it is a disorder, or that people who have been suicidal always will be. Neither is suicide a sign of moral inferiority.

Sometimes people erroneously believe that talking about suicide will trigger an attempt. When a person begins to feel better following a suicide attempt, it does not mean that the risk is over, It is precisely at this time that more awareness and continued support is needed because the person has the energy and the means to turn suicidal thoughts into action.

Influence of a TV drama
Sometimes, following the dramatisation of suicide on TV through drug overdose, an increase in attempted suicides is noticed. If reporting suicide is made to seem attractive, noble or admirable, it can promote copycat suicides. Sometimes there are spates of copycat suicides where one victim is known to another, and the behaviour of one influences that of his or her companions.

What is the cause of suicide?
There is no simple answer to this question. In fact, a combination of different factors may be involved eg:

  • Breaking up of close relationships or difficulties in interpersonal relationships with family and friends.
  • Worry about academic perfomance and doing less well than hoped for.
  • Lack of confidence in personal appearance and attractiveness.
  • Lack of emotional stability; students, especially in their first year in college, often have difficulty in finding friends in their new environment and, consequently, they may experience a sense of isolation.
  • The effects of drugs and alcohol may increase feelings of unhappiness and alienation.
  • Feeling pessimistic about one's future and one's ability to meet goals.
  • More than anything else, simply feeling lonely, abandoned and isolated.

Some hints on how to talk to a person who may be suicidal

  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes and imagine how they might feel. Ask them, for example, 'How are you feeling?', 'What can I do to help you at the moment?'.
  • Use open-ended questions, for example 'Who is aware of your feelings?', 'How did they respond?', 'Tell me how you came to make this decision?'.
  • Try to avoid questions which will give a 'yes' or 'no' answer.
  • Paraphrase what the person is saying to you, eg: 'What I hear you saying is...'
  • Reflect back what the person is feeling eg: 'I can see you are very worried about...', 'You're very upset about this, aren't you?', 'It's obvious why you're upset...'
  • Summarise what the person is saying, giving the overall picture by using keywords and paying attention to their feelings.

Do encourage them to seek professional help

We can have an impact on reducing suicides by developing an attitude of awareness around the issues involved and by being more sensitive to peoples' needs and problems.

Mental Health Ireland
Providing help to those who are mentally ill and promoting positive mental health.  

Mensana House, 
6 Adelaide Street, 
Dun Laoghaire, 
Co Dublin. 
Web : http://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/ 
Email : informationmentalhealthireland.ie

The National University of Ireland, Galway Student Counselling Service wishes to thank the Counselling Service of The University of Limerick for granting permission to reproduce this fact sheet.