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National Suicide Prevention Week activities raise awareness among college students

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline logo

One thousand one hundred. 1,100. That’s enough people to fill up more than a third of the seats at the convention center in Beckley and only a few hundred short of WVU Tech’s entire student population.

That’s also about how many students end their own lives on college campuses every year.

WVU Tech Behavioral Health Therapist Mary Hoke runs the counseling center on campus. She said that because suicide is often an off-limits topic of conversation, people are generally unaware of how prevalent suicide and suicidal ideation can be among college students. The truth, she said, is that a staggering one in every 12 students makes a suicide plan. 

“Here at Tech, that means one or two people in a given classroom could fall into that category, where they have made some type of a suicide plan,” she said. “Suicide isn't something that's an abstract idea. It's real and it does happen. People around us every day feel this.”

September 10-16 is National Suicide Prevention Week, and to raise awareness about the topic on campus, Hoke has been working with various departments on events throughout the week.

“It’s about raising awareness and removing the stigma involved with suicide in general. It's about reaching out to people to help them understand what suicide is, how many people are impacted by it, that they're not alone and that there is help out there,” she said.

On Monday, September 11, student volunteers will help put together 1,100 pinwheels. The pinwheels will be planted in front of the offices along South Kanawha Street to represent those 1,100 who turn to suicide each year.

“It’s a visual statement that helps people realize the scope of this,” said Hoke. “You can talk about that number, but to actually see 1,100 of something tends to have a little more impact.”

On Wednesday, September 13, WVU Tech Athletics and the university’s TRIO Student Support Services program will host guest speaker Amy Gamble, executive director of the Greater Wheeling chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A former Olympian and West Virginia native, Gamble lives with bipolar disorder.

"She talks about her story and makes it very relatable to our students. She shares about how she dealt with mental illness and how she overcame her struggles to go on and complete her master's degree and then become involved with a national organization,” said Hoke. “It’s a powerful story of hope.”

The next day, Hoke said that there will be a table set up in the LRC for students who want more information on suicide prevention. Students interested in helping with the pinwheel project, the Amy Gamble event or the information booth can contact Hoke to find out how to get involved.

Golden Bears are never alone

Hoke said the week’s activities serve a vital role in connecting with students on the topic of suicide.

"It's important to have this discussion on college campuses because that open dialogue helps to bring the issue into the light. It makes people realize that they're not alone, that there is help out there and that they don't have to hide in the corner – that people do care about them," she said.

"Even if the students involved in the discussion are not suicidal,” she added, “they may have a friend, classmate, roommate or teammate who is going through a suicidal time in their life. This helps build that awareness so they can reach out and help when it's needed."

Hoke said that warning signs could include isolation and withdrawal from normal activities, feelings of hopelessness, reckless behavior (such as overuse of alcohol or taking risks they would normally avoid), erratic sleeping patterns, mood swings, anxiety or agitation. Students who tell their friends that they feel unbearable pain, feel a sense of being "trapped" or feel like they’re a burden to others may also be at risk.

"That's a really big red flag," she said.

For college students in particular, big life changes and increased pressure can cause someone to think about suicide as an option.

"College students have a lot of financial burdens. They have a lot more pressure at home and in the classroom. This is the first time that a lot of students have ever been away from home, and it's often the first time they have ever been in serious relationships, so there are a lot of things that tie into why college students might turn to suicide,” she said.

It’s so prevalent, in fact, that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 20-24.

Hoke said that LGBTQ+ students and veterans may face additional struggles that can increase the likelihood of suicide or suicidal ideation.

“Members of the LGBTQ+ community exhibit a high rate of suicide from struggling with their own sexuality, the stress of coming out to their loved ones or not feeling accepted,” she said.

Hoke said that The Trevor Project (1.866.488.7386) is a powerful tool. It’s a national organization that provides confidential crisis and suicide intervention for the LGBTQ+ community.

West Virginia has a high percentage of veterans, and Hoke said that veterans suffering from PTSD can be more likely to experience suicidal thoughts or actions. There are crisis hotlines for suicide prevention among veterans, like the Veterans Crisis Line (1.800.273.8255, press 1), that provide confidential help.

“We’re also lucky enough to have a VA center right here in Beckley that can provide services for that as well,” said Hoke.

She said that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1.800.273.8255) is an effective resource for anyone considering suicide or who knows someone who might be. For WVU Tech students, the campus counseling center is available 24 hours a day at 304.929.1237.

“Our line is available to students at any time, and you don't have to be on campus to use it. If you're a resident or commuter student, or a family member of the student, call that number if you think there's a crisis or the threat of suicide. You’ll talk to an actual counselor,” she said. 

For faculty and staff members who might be experiencing issues, WVU Tech Human Resources can set up outside counseling free of charge.

Want to know more? Check out this resource on how to recognize risk factors and warning signs, how to talk to someone about suicide and how to refer a friend or loved one to a crisis contact.