Warning Signs, Protective Factors, Risk Factors
- College can be a stressful time and every student will handle it differently. There are some major risk factors that can make your student more vulnerable to dealing with issues related to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health concerns.
- Risk factors may make a student more vulnerable, but there is still much you can do to assist and advocate for your student.
Watch out for times of high stress when students may be especially at risk for negative mental health outcomes. This includes the transition into campus life at the beginning of each semester as well as during midterm and final exam periods.
Some other common events that may be especially stressful are:
- A break-up or loss of a relationship
- Not getting accepted into the major of choice
- Fear of poor grades
- Fear of losing financial aid
- The pressure to be perfect
Students may be particularly reluctant to seek mental health treatment for these reasons:
- Belief that they should handle their problems on their own
- Concerns about what family, peers, or professors may think
- Concerns that their feelings may mean they are “crazy.”
Having thoughts of suicide is very serious and something that needs your immediate attention. Most suicidal people don’t want to die. They just want their pain to end.
Here are some common risk factors of suicide:
- Family history of depression and/or suicide
- History of previous suicide attempts
- Access to firearms or other lethal methods
- Prejudice, racial tension, discrimination, or inter-cultural conflict
- Poverty and under-or unemployment
- Experiences of hopelessness and helplessness
- Conflict with others or feeling misunderstood
- Absence of interpersonal attachments
- A new educational system
- Homesickness and culture shock
- Academic problems (e.g. failing courses, missing classes, inattentiveness).
- History of abuse
- Mental health problem that is untreated (e.g. depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety)
- Isolation from family and/or spiritual community
- A recent loss (e.g. death or break-up)
- Concerns about mental health stigma
- Feelings of alienation, loneliness, guilt, shame, or inadequacy
- Behaviors that are impulsive or aggressive
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Language barriers
- Fears about seeking help for depression or suicidal thoughts
In addition to these risk factors, you may notice some signs that your student may be struggling with their mental health and/or having thoughts of suicide. These are some of the most common first signs of trouble:
- Depressed mood
- No interest in activities
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Social withdrawal
- Impulsive, reckless behavior
- Uncontrollable anger
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Anxiety and agitation
- Inability to concentrate
- Dramatic mood swings
- Sense that life has no purpose
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Feelings of hopelessness or being trapped
- Thoughts of death or suicide
If you notice that your student is behaving differently, start a conversation NOW.
Here are some signs that your student may be suicidal:
- She expresses depression, anxiety, stress, and feelings of hopelessness
- She has increased conflicts with or aggression towards others
- She talks or writes about death and dying, killing oneself, or ending it all
- Starts giving away possessions or tying up loose ends
When to Intervene and What to Do if Your Student Expresses Suicidal Distress
Don’t ignore the warning signs. Suicide is a leading cause of death for college students. You are in an optimal position to getting your student the help they need.
- Express your concern. Acknowledge that you know your student is struggling and offer your help.
- Listen, offer support and understanding. You might not know what to say and that is okay. Just be present with your student and emphasize that you are on their side.
- Don’t judge, argue, or act shocked by his or her plans.
You may save your student’s life just by doing some of these things:
- Ask your student if she is thinking about suicide. Bringing up the topic of suicide will not put the idea into her head.
- You may not understand what your student is struggling with. But you can help him get through it.
- Be persistent but gentle. Keep asking questions and getting answers.
- Offer to call for help if your student is reluctant. This may mean calling or paging a therapist or psychiatrist, reaching out to the campus health service, or sitting with him in the Emergency Room.
- Learn all you can about mental health and suicide. Educate yourself on the resources on the Ohio State campus and off-campus in the Columbus community.
What Parents Can Do to Prevent Suicide
Here are some basic tips:
- Start a conversation about mental health early in your student’s college career. By doing this, you empower your student to seek help when he needs it and not be vulnerable to stigma.
- Be careful about the language you use when talking about mental health and suicide. Avoid words like “crazy.”
- Get to know your student’s moods and behaviors. Especially in the beginning as your
student transitions into college, it might help to be a positive support.
- Encourage your student to seek help at the earliest signs of mental health difficulties and suicidal thoughts.
- Learn about the mental health resources Ohio State offers, such as the Counseling and Consultation Service.
- Learn all you can about suicide. Know the common risk factors and warning signs and
have a plan in mind for what to do.
Tips on Postvention Response When Your Student Attempts or Completes Suicide
As a parent, what should you do if your student attempts or completes suicide? The Suicide Prevention Resource Center suggests these things:
- Provide for Immediate and Long-Term Postvention | Suicide Prevention Resource Center (sprc.org).
- Provide support and guidance for friends and family members.
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors in loved ones can be very stressful. Be sure to take care of your own mental health too.
- Build capacity for ongoing support and treatment.
These populations may be more at-risk to experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors:
- LGBTQ individuals
- Minority students
- International students
- First generation students
- Students with disabilities