Though many would rather not discuss it, and deem it a ‘personal issue,’ suicide is a growing problem among post-secondary students that cannot be ignored.

The number of students considering suicide, and succeeding, appears to be rising, and the issue of mental health has become a real worry on campuses all over Canada as the pressures of post-secondary education intensify. According to a survey conducted by the Canadian Organization of University and College Health in 2013, 9.5 per cent of 30, 000 post-secondary students said they had seriously considered taking their own lives in the past year, while 1.3 per cent said they had attempted suicide.

The life of a post-secondary student is stressful in many domains. School. Volunteering. Work. Family. Friends. Relationships. Health. Finances. Housing.

The ability to cope is an acquired skill, and one that takes time to learn. Getting over life’s hurdles takes time for introspection, and that’s also in short supply. Most often, students aren’t left alone with their thoughts on the bus to school or the walk across campus. They’re texting, listening to music, checking Facebook or Twitter, often all at once. There’s no time to mull over difficult, complicated emotions, and no immediate reason to do it, either.

Discourse—between and among students, staff, and faculty—is not only central to coping, but is critical to understanding and preventing suicide within post-secondary institutions.

Unfortunately, however, public discussion is often hushed by a sense of cultural taboo, and media reporting is somewhat muted over concerns that detailing specifics will lead to more victims. Yet, open, direct, and honest discussion about suicide on university and college campuses is critical, in order to prevent the loss of today’s bright young adults and future leaders.

Mark Henick, a mental health advocate for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ontario, notes that the most important, and perhaps the most challenging, means of prevention is to recognize those who are at risk.

“Suicide doesn’t come out of nowhere,” says Henick. “Most people give off signs and symptoms.”

He emphasizes that suicide prevention depends heavily on our ability to recognize those people who are in distress and may be at risk through the behaviours and thoughts they present. These include suicidal thoughts, anxiety, hopelessness/helplessness, withdrawal, anger, recklessness, and mood changes.

Suicide awareness, then, is necessary for suicide prevention (aiming to avert thoughts of suicide or prepare for them in the future), intervention (aiming to prevent suicidal thoughts from becoming suicidal actions), and postvention (aiming to prevent future suicidal thoughts).

Thankfully, suicide awareness among students, staff, and faculty within post-secondary institutions can be built and improved with safeTALK and ASIST, two accessible, yet relatively unknown, workshops designed by LivingWorks, the world’s leading provider of suicide intervention training.

safeTALK is a 3-hour alertness workshop that prepares anyone at a university and college community, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a suicide-alert helper.

Tarie Kinzel, a director on the LivingWorks Board and co-developer of safeTALK, asserts that most people with thoughts of suicide do not truly want to die, but are struggling with the pain in their lives. And through their words and actions, these individuals invite help to stay alive. safeTALK-trained helpers can recognize these invitations and take action by connecting them with life-saving intervention resources.

Through examples, discussion, and practice, participants learn practical steps to help activate a suicide alert that connects people having thoughts of suicide with more specialized intervention care. What safeTALK does is help participants (1) move beyond common tendencies to miss, dismiss, or avoid suicide; (2) identify people who are have thoughts and are at risk of suicide; and (3) confidently apply the simple, yet effective, TALK steps—Tell, Ask, Listen, and KeepSafe—to connect the person with resources that can help them stay safe. This might be a professional caregiver or someone trained in ASIST—often, they’re one and the same. By providing a connection to intervention resources, safeTALK offers an important avenue to assistance when university students need it most.

Also, because it only takes 3 hours to learn, safeTALK is an excellent tool for post-secondary students, staff, and faculty, who want to become alert to the dangers of suicide in a convenient time frame.

Although safeTALK and ASIST are separate programs, they are designed to complement each other.

ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) is a two-day intensive, interactive, and practice-dominated course that provides participants the skills to directly intervene with someone at risk, and work directly with them to prevent the immediate risk of suicide. Perhaps most importantly, the ASIST model also involves creating a safety plan with the individual at risk to avoid the danger of suicide in the future.

By completing the ASIST workshop, participants learn to competently discuss suicide with a person at risk in a direct manner; identify risk alerts and develop a safe plan related to them; and confidently list the types of resources available to the person at risk of suicide, including the participants themselves.

Many who attend safeTALK later decide to take ASIST. By working in concert, people with safeTALK and ASIST training create a larger, more effective network of suicide intervention resources. The result is that students at risk of suicide are more likely to have their invitations for help recognized—and more likely to get the help they need in staying safe.

Exactly why students think about suicide or act upon those thoughts is far more likely to differ among them than it is to be similar. And measures that account for all of the most common “warning signs” known to be associated with suicide continue to falsely identify many individuals who are not at risk and miss many who are.

According to LivingWorks, the best way to identify individuals at risk is to ask them directly: “Are you thinking about suicide?”

Creating a relationship with a student at risk— whether you are a student, staff, or faculty—through open talk about suicide builds the trust that makes it possible to find out in certain terms if that student is experiencing suicidal thoughts. Honest discussion is also the best way to more fully understand what their reasons are.

safeTALK and ASIST provide critical tools and skills, so that participants are more willing, ready, and able to recognize someone at risk, and to thoughtfully connect and communicate with that individual to keep him or her safe.

By allowing the student to talk openly about suicide with someone who cares—be it a fellow student, staff, or faculty member—suicide awareness and the dialogue that follows counteract the most consistently dangerous risk factor: being alone with thoughts of suicide.

By: Veerpal Bambrah
Edited by: Allyssa Fernandez
Image by: Samer Lazkani

For more than thirty years, LivingWorks has developed and delivered various training programs of the highest quality with the goal of saving lives from suicide. They offer seven programs pertaining to suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention (two of which are safeTALK and ASIST) at numerous university/college campuses and community centres within Canada and internationally. If you or anyone else you know is interested in learning more about the safeTALK and ASIST training workshops (i.e., future training dates and locations), please visit:


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