Colleges and suicide threats: when to call home?

Involving them too readily might discourage some people from getting help, or complicate treatment once they do.

“The less flexibility we have, it actually compromises care,” said Mary-Jeanne Raleigh, director of counseling services at St. Mary’s College in Maryland and president of ACCA, the American College Counseling Association. Overly rigid policies mean, she said, “I can’t review what is best for the individual standing in front of me because the law is saying you have to x, y and z.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students, behind automobile accidents. A 2010 survey of counseling center directors found at least 133 college students had taken their lives in the previous year.

The better indicator is probably the rate, estimated at about 6 to 7.5 per 100,000 — though that’s only about half the suicide rate for similarly aged people not in college.

But while the research highlights the danger, it also sheds light on why these are tough calls for colleges. Warning signs aren’t always as black and white as they were at Virginia Tech. A milder form of suicidal ideation — fleeting hopelessness or thoughts about death —is common among college-age students.

A 2009 survey of 26,000 students at 70 colleges found that roughly half reported having had at least occasional suicidal thoughts. But more than half of those said such thoughts lasted a day or less.

Roughly 6 percent of undergraduates reported they had “seriously considered attempting suicide” in the last 12 months. Colleges must determine who’s most at risk — typically those who have made detailed plans and acquired means such as a weapon or pills.

“Someone who’s seeking help but says, ‘I have to admit I have these thoughts five or six times a day and they’re kind of scary’ — that’s someone I wouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to call the parents right away,” Raleigh said. “That’s very different from the person I get a call from at 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning who’s been drinking and has immediate plans to kill themselves.”

The 2010 survey of counseling directors found that when a client was considered a “suicidal risk” but didn’t meet the state-law criteria for involuntary hospitalization, 41 percent wouldn’t notify anyone else without a signed release from the student.

Only 13 percent said they would notify family; 22 percent said they would notify a superior, and 19 percent said it would depend on the situation.

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