By Travonte Harris, Staff Writer

The #JustAsk T-Shirt from Counseling Services (Courtesy of Laura Holt/UMSL Counseling Services)
The #JustAsk T-Shirt from Counseling Services (Courtesy of Laura Holt/UMSL Counseling Services)

September 2016 is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In honor of the month, The Current interviewed Dr. Laura Holt, Psychologist/Outreach Coordinator for Health, Wellness, and Counseling Services at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, about their new Ask, Listen, Refer training.

The Current: What is the suicide prevention giveaway?

Dr. Laura Holt: UMSL Counseling Services has partnered with the Triton Health Educators for our #JustAsk campaign, which is designed to encourage UMSL students to just ask a friend or loved one if they’re concerned about their suicide risk. 43% of UMSL students have thought about killing themselves, and most students go to their friends first for help. So we can save lives by empowering students to spot the signs of suicide risk and talk to their friends about their concerns. We are offering a free #JustAsk t-shirt to anyone who completes the Ask, Listen, Refer training. The Ask, Listen, Refer training (www.asklistenrefer.org/umsl) is a free 20-minute training that teaches the risk factors and warning signs for suicide risk, and does a great job of demonstrating how a conversation expressing concern for a friend can go. I often hear people say they’re afraid to ask someone if they’re thinking about killing themselves because they’re afraid that will give them the idea, but in reality the opposite is true: talking about suicidal thoughts actually REDUCES risk. You’re giving someone a tremendous gift when you offer to walk with them through their hardest times, and it’s often not as difficult as you think. So #JustAsk!

TC: What impact will it have on the college?

Holt: We’re already seeing the #JustAsk t-shirts around campus, which is tremendous because every person wearing them is taking a stand against the stigma surrounding suicide. Even more exciting, with each person that completes the Ask, Listen, Refer training, that’s one more person on campus who knows what to look for and how to talk about suicide. It’s our hope that every student will complete the training, rock the shirt, and save lives!

TC: What impact will it have on students?

Holt: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. Suicide has touched many, many lives on campus but it’s still something that’s hard to talk about because of the stigma surrounding it. The way UMSL is embracing the #JustAsk campaign is a huge strike back against that stigma, and a message of support and encouragement to students who are struggling with thoughts of killing themselves and may feel very alone. We would love to never lose another Triton to suicide, that’s our hope for the impact of this campaign.

TC: Who is most at risk for committing suicide?

Holt: People who are most at risk for suicide may perceive themselves to be in a hopeless situation; they may have just experienced a loss of a relationship, failed a class, or found themselves in financial difficulties. They may struggle with substance abuse, which can contribute to that trapped feeling. Loneliness and social isolation is a risk factor because people who are struggling may isolate themselves, and loneliness can increase their sense of hopelessness and make them feel like no one cares about their pain. If a person has attempted suicide in the past or has a family history of suicide, that increases their risk, as does mental illness, particularly depression. In 2014, the highest U.S. suicide rate was among White people and the second highest rate was among American Indians and Alaskan Native people. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, but men die by suicide nearly four times more often than women. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, while 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.

TC: What can be done to prevent it?

Holt: We can talk about it! Part of what makes suicide so deadly is that sense of isolation, so watching for warning signs in our friends and family and having the conversation about it helps fight that hopelessness that comes with feeling so alone. A man named Ken Hines is one of only thirty-six people to have ever survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and now he travels around the world talking about his experience and teaching suicide prevention skills. He says he walked around the whole day before he tried to kill himself hoping someone would ask him if he was all right, because he did not want to die but he did not know what else to do. No one talked to him that day or for the entire 40 minutes he stood on the bridge, which he took as a sign that no one cared, so he jumped: for want of someone to ask him if he was all right, to show him that he mattered and help him figure out a different plan. The Ask, Listen, Refer training is a great way to learn how to do that.

TC: If a student knows someone at risk for committing suicide what can they do to help?

Holt: If someone you know is talking about feeling hopeless or about killing themselves, has withdrawn from their loved ones, or is talking at all about wanting to die or giving up, just ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves. It’s important to trust your instincts; you know your friend, and if their behavior has changed enough to make you worry, especially if they’re displaying the risk signs, it’s important to ask straight-forwardly. The worst thing that might happen is a brief bit of awkwardness, but chances are that person will feel validated that you’re taking their pain seriously and care enough about them to talk about hard stuff. If they do say they’re having thoughts of killing themselves, listen! It can be painful to hear that someone you care about is feeling suicidal, but the most loving thing you can do is create space for them to talk about how they feel. That action alone will reduce their suicide risk. But this is also not a secret you should keep, it’s important to refer them to resources to keep them safe. Call us at 314-516-5711 or walk them over to our office in MSC 131; we’re open Monday – Friday 8-5 for crisis walk-ins but our phones are answered 24/7 by trained clinicians. We can help them make a plan to keep themselves safe. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-8255 (TALK)) and sit with your friend while they talk on speaker phone. Help them text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Ask your friend if there is a family member or religious leader with whom they might like to talk. NEVER feel like you have to prevent someone’s suicide all by yourself. But do check in with them after the crisis is over; suicide risk goes down when someone follows up with the at-risk person.

TC: What is the impact on family and friends when suicide is committed?

Holt: In addition to the devastating pain of the unique loss of a loved one from suicide, suicide has a terrible kind of ‘contagious’ effect in friend and family groups. People with a family history of completed suicide are twice as likely to complete suicide than someone without such a family history, even after adjusting for differences in individual socioeconomic status and psychiatric history. In addition, the suicide of a person many people know can have a deadly effect on the community, as publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people.

TC: How common is suicidal thoughts and what causes them to go from thoughts to reality?

Holt: 43% of UMSL students have thought about killing themselves. People attempt suicide for several reasons. They’re depressed and feel so hopeless they feel like there’s no escape and the world would be better off without them. They’re struggling against a severe mental or physical illness that makes them feel like life is not worth living. They’re impulsive in a moment of despair, and may be under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. They’re crying out for help, and don’t know how else to get it. They have a philosophical desire to die, to take control of their destiny and alleviate their own suffering.

TC: What can you do if you are having these thoughts?

Holt: Tell someone. Give tomorrow a chance to get better. There may be some stuff you haven’t tried yet; it may not always hurt this bad. Depression lies to you and tells you it will; don’t listen. If you come and talk to a clinician, we can try to figure out how to keep you safe while we give therapy and/or medication a chance to help you feel better. I know sometimes people are scared we will put them in the hospital against their will, but we do our best to honor our clients’ wishes and only take such drastic steps if we are convinced that they won’t be able to keep themselves safe without that level of care. But if you don’t feel like we’re a fit, tell SOMEONE.

To complete the training, visit asklistenrefer.org/umsl.