Caroline Frank, Staff Writer and Photographer
An average of 1,100 college students die by suicide each year, according to University of Missouri–St. Louis student Andrew Quon, senior, anthropology.
Quon is the vice president of UMSL’s official chapter of To Write Love on Her Arms, a movement dedicated to helping those who struggle with mental illness, self-harm and thoughts of suicide. In light of National Suicide Prevention Week, TWLOHA placed 1,100 purple flags outside UMSL’s Thomas Jefferson Library to honor those students.
“That’s an extremely alarming number,” Quon said. “Any number is alarming above zero.”
TWLOHA will be participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Walk on Sept. 30 at Creve Coeur Park. The AFSP’s goal, according to their website, is to “reduce the annual suicide rate 20 percent by 2025.”
According to Laura Holt, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist and Outreach Coordinator of UMSL Counseling Services, 43 percent of Tritons struggle with suicidal thoughts in a given year.
“Reducing the stigma [around] talking about suicide … really pushes back against hopelessness and isolation,” Holt said. “We could literally save lives.”
Everyone to some degree grapples with mental health problems, according to Holt.
“We all have events that overwhelm our coping skills, but there’s this taboo about talking about it,” Holt said.
Directly asking people if they are thinking about suicide lowers their risk, according to Holt.
“It’s really just having the courage to enter that moment with someone,” Holt said.
Holt described the importance of National Suicide Prevention Week, “No more suicides – and that’s pretty lofty, but – that’s our driving goal.”
According to Holt, college is the largest source of upheaval humans experience. “Typically, you’ve just entered adulthood,” Holt said. “I don’t know a single person who felt ready for that.”
Holt said the lifestyle of a typical student is not necessarily conducive to mental health. “We’re just stretched too thin,” Holt said.
Holt listed a few risk factors of suicide, including the following: losing a job, experiencing a breakup, facing academic failure and dealing with substance abuse.
“That’s a recipe for suicide risk,” Holt said.
Holt explained how people often think they should be feeling a certain way, “We compare ourselves to others … We’re not really good at validating ourselves. We think, ‘I should be leading this happy life, but I’m not, and that makes me feel like garbage.’”
Holt said being diagnosed with mental illness and struggling with suicidal thoughts do not necessarily correlate.
“There [are] a lot more factors that go into it than that,” Holt stated.
Holt values her personal experiences with depression and anxiety as tools to practice empathy. “I think a lot of us … want to make things better for others than they were for ourselves,” Holt said.
Everyone’s story is unique, but there are “common flavors,” according to Holt. “I can connect with them because I’ve had my own stuff,” Holt said. “I know it’s hard, but I also have hope for them.”
Holt said suffering is an inherent characteristic of existence, “If you’re not suffering, you’re probably not growing … But, it shouldn’t hurt to the point that we want to kill ourselves or that we have to turn to maladaptive coping. Mental health means … [being] able to handle what life hands us without going under.”
According to Holt, one obstacle to mental health is intergenerational trauma.
“If you were raised in a family that struggled with [that], your parents may not have had great skills to help you grow into a healthy person with a great self-concept and resilient skills,” Holt said.
Holt mentioned another obstacle to mental health is if someone grows up under the weight of oppression.
“We live in a society that prizes certain identities over others,” Holt noted.
There are significant mental health factors woven into society, according to Holt. “It’s a learned skill,” Holt said.
Holt added how hereditary factors also influence mental health. “There’s an interaction effect that can kick our mental health down,” Holt said. “If it hurts too much and your functioning is too affected by what you’re carrying, either you need more support, and/or you need more skills.”
If a student is struggling with mental health issues, that person can go to Room 131 of the Millennium Student Center or call UMSL Counseling Services at 314-516-5711. Another resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Anyone can call 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat and receive free services at any time. Professors, parents, friends, employers and others can also support students by genuinely asking how they are doing and knowing the signs of struggle.
“It’s those people that are essential to fighting the suicide epidemic because they have a reach we don’t,” Holt said.
For NSPW, UMSL Counseling Services encouraged people to take the Ask. Listen. Refer. training. It is available at asklistenrefer.org.
“It’s a great training,” Holt said. “It’s free and takes about 10 to 15 minutes.”
Holt also encourages people to take another free training program called Respond, which focuses on how to spot mental health issues, engage in conversation about mental illness and help people get connected to resources.
“You might be their light in the dark,” Holt said. “If [you] reach out, they might be able to reach back.”