To the Editor:
This is the time of year where students in their senior year of high school are finishing up their college applications and are anxiously waiting for acceptance letters. It is an exciting time, filled with anticipation about what college will be like and what experiences the first year living away from home will bring. As a recent college graduate, that is where I found myself five years ago. Amidst all that anticipation, one thing I did not expect was how hard that first year would be in terms of my mental health.
As an individual with a history of clinical depression, I was at a higher risk for suicide. However, even people who have not previously suffered from a mental illness can also be at risk – so it is important to recognize and consider risk factors before a student begins their first year at college. Once you recognize your own risks it can be easier to approach mental health professionals early on, before you find yourself in a dark place and don’t know where to turn for help.
Risk factors can be divided into two groups: internal and external. Internal factors include mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder; abuse of drugs or alcohol; suffering from constant physical or emotional pain; or suffering from intense internal conflict such as being deeply in debt, or trying to hide sexual orientation or gender identity.
External factors may include friends or family members that have attempted, completed, or glamorized suicide; access to methods of suicide such as firearms, poisons or drugs; a stressful or traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or failing to achieve an important lifelong goal; or being the victim of bullying or harassment. It is also important to consider a family history of suicide. These lists and more about risk factors can be found at www.affordablecollegesonline.org in their College Resource Center under “Suicide Prevention in College,” written and compiled by Sue Lichtfuss.
Once you are aware of potential risk factors, pay close attention during orientation when they explain about what mental health services are available on campus. Or if it is not mentioned, seek out the student health clinic on your own. Most colleges today offer some form of mental healthcare, and it is important to know what resources are available to you even if you do not feel you need them just yet. Most mental health clinics get swamped during stressful times of year such as during midterms or finals, and you can find yourself on a waitlist at a critical time. It’s a good idea to make an appointment early on in the semester and establish a relationship with a mental health professional so that if and when things do get stressful you will have someone you can contact right away.
These are just a few of the things that I learned – the hard way – during my first year at college. The key to suicide prevention in college is recognizing the risks and locating the resources on campus before your life is in danger. If you’re looking for more information about the transition to college, you can find excellent resources at www.suicide-iowacountywi.org/teaching-about-suicide/.