Handling College After a Loss to Suicide

The swirl of moving away from home for the first time, making new friends, and mastering higher level academics is tough enough for anyone, but young adults who must make this transition or return to classes after losing a parent, sibling, friend, or significant other to suicide are being asked to tackle new surroundings and heavy course loads at the worst possible time.

Dr. Ann Phillips, who worked in the counseling field for over 40 years, shared how the University of West Georgia (UWG) in Carrollton, Georgia, helps students, faculty, and parents cope.

The mission of UWG’s Prevent Program is to prevent suicides from occurring, but it also provides an outlet for students who have been touched by suicide. One student reaches out to another who has experienced similar circumstances by enlisting him or her in various activities and outreach programs that help prevent suicide. This accomplishes an important goal: opening up the subject to go beyond shame into sharing.  

“Apart from the Prevent Program, we have the Counseling and Career Development Center. Here is where a student can reserve a standing weekly appointment with a counselor in order to come to terms with the loss, the shame, the anger, and the damaging consequences of the suicide of someone loved,” Dr. Phillips said. “Here, too, is possible the exploration of what the fear of letting people know is all about. I think every college with a counseling center would provide this.”

If there is no counseling service available at other colleges and universities, help can still be found through a minister, close friend or professor – someone not involved in the same grief as the student – who would have the time, neutrality, and “safeness” needed for lots of emotional discussions. The person who can listen best often has a similar trauma in his or her own life. 

A counselor, pastor, or other helping professional can assist students as they explore aspects of their lives that have been affected and try to understand the complexities of suicide. Often the suicide act is rooted in the deceased person’s history of years before but is seemingly triggered by some more recent situation. Talking about this addresses the guilt students almost invariably feel in not having been able to “be there for” their loved one.

It can help immensely if students write about their concerns or if family members share similar feelings. Emotions like shock, shame, anger, guilt, anxiety, emptiness, depression, loss of faith, grief and, often, puzzlement are common.

Often, survivors are not ready to talk until much later, but eventually must in order to resolve somewhat such a confusing mix of emotions. Eventually, talking about it is essential. Dr. Phillips called what survivors experience “a serious trauma that must be dealt with to enable the person to continue with his life without having to hide the secret.”

Caring about students includes presenting opportunities. Periodically, UWG presents a panel event to answer questions students have about suicide and to anonymously invite students who have a deeper concern to talk with a counselor.

Training is provided for the RA’s (dormitory student residence advisors) at the beginning of every year so they will know how to handle such sensitive areas.

The college Health Service has medical doctors, nurses and other medical professionals trained to recognize and deal with trauma and depression stemming from a suicide loss. Medications and correct referral are available.

Dr. Phillips suggests the following for students who don’t know how to share their loss on campus or who may dread questions about family.

  • Talk to your professors early in the semester. If you live on campus, also talk to your RA. Let them know you have “a situation,” a sensitive area that would make it difficult to answer family questions in class. They will have received training about such situations and would immediately either invite you to a private conference or would refer you to a counselor or pastor. The professor will modify plans to talk about family issues in class.
  • If the class promises to be “too personal,” drop it in the interests of self-care and seek someone to talk with about it.
  • In the event your campus does not offer counseling services, first recognize and acknowledge you have experienced severe trauma with many repercussions. Do not try to just tough it out alone. Find out what religious organizations are on campus and talk with one of those leaders about what to do.
  • Take a semester or two away from college to recover your emotional equilibrium. Students often think, “Being back in class will help me.” But they find, unexpectedly, that their academic minds and concentration simply don’t work on command after such a loss. They will often fail a class or drop out.
  • Look for a friend who can handle discussing such serious aspects of your life, and give him or her a trial to find out if this is helpful. Even a short conversation can be helpful — if the friend has the depth to handle the discussion without being afraid to listen.
  • Visit the campus Health Service and the medical doctor there, or at home, for direction and possibly for temporary medication to help with depression and anxiety.

You are not alone. You can survive.

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