April 2, 2008 / 7:17 PM / 12 years ago

Sense of belonging a key to suicide prevention

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The rate of suicide among young people is triple what it was 50 years ago, and while it remains exceedingly rare for college students to kill themselves, it is always a tragedy — and always preventable, according to a New York psychiatrist and authority on suicide.

“I don’t think people should panic that this is an epidemic,” Dr. David Kahn, who is vice chair for clinical affairs at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center and on staff at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, told Reuters Health. In fact, Kahn noted in an interview, young people in college are actually less likely to kill themselves than their peers who aren’t attending college.

Nevertheless, he added, depression and suicidal thoughts are common among college kids, and must be addressed. About half of young people report experiencing depression severe enough to interfere with their functioning at least one point during their college years, while 1 in 10 report having suicidal thoughts.

The college years are a particularly risky time for several reasons, Kahn pointed out. For one, many young people are away from home, parents and old friends for the first time in their lives. These years are also a key time for experimenting with drugs and alcohol. And finally, the late teens and early 20s are the time when serious psychiatric illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia first appear.

“Certain major mood disorders often begin precisely when people are going off to college,” Kahn explained. “Then of course there’s the stress of just being in college.” Stress won’t in itself drive a person to kill himself, he added, but difficulty managing that stress is related to suicide. So one key element of helping to prevent suicide is to help young people learn to manage stress effectively, Kahn said.

Helping people who feel isolated to connect or reconnect with others is also important, he added. “Connection and a feeling of social belonging is I think the most important initial step in preventing suicide,” Kahn said. “Once the person feels that sense of trust in belong to the community, they may be more receptive to suggestions that they seek help, if they haven’t sought it already.”

Nearly all colleges and universities in the US now have suicide prevention programs in place, he added. Students, parents and other college community members who want more information on warning signs of suicide and prevention strategies can get in touch with the program at their institution.

They can also look to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org/), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (here), and the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention (here) for information.

Finally, anyone who has suicidal thoughts can get help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by calling the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

“Students have to know that it’s a sign of strength, not of weakness, to reach out and get help,” Kahn said.

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