My son, Kelsey Buzzanco, should be enrolled and taking classes in his final semester at UH. Kelsey was an incredibly bright kid and really popular. He had a sarcastic and clever sense of humor and he was an adrenaline junkie. Riding motorcycles, he’d blow by me doing 130; riding bicycles, he’d lose me on the rugged trails at Memorial Park; paddling kayaks, he’d get in the wake of a Jet Ski and try to capsize his vessel.
I’m using the past tense, as you’ve probably noticed, because I lost Kelsey; he killed himself on March 11th, 2010. I’m a “survivor” of suicide, as the families and friends of those who died by their own hand are called. There are many, many survivors like me. I live every day with the indescribable pain of missing my son.
But I’m not writing this to tell you what a great kid Kelsey was, or to offer comfort to other survivors. Suicide, especially among college age people, is a grave and growing problem. And this week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and Saturday, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. And we all could use more information about this national health crisis.
The statistics on suicide are alarming. About 35,000 people kill themselves per year, almost 100 a day. Those who study this issue estimate that for every successful suicide, there may be 50 to 100 attempts, which would amount to more than 1 million a year. Females attempt suicide three times more frequently than males, but males complete suicides almost four times more often, usually because they use deadly force like guns (as Kelsey did), which account for over half of all successful attempts, or hanging.
Among young and college-age people, suicide is the third leading cause of death, at about 4,300 per year, behind accidents and homicides. In the past few years, suicide rates among the middle-aged have risen alarmingly, certainly to some degree because of the economic calamities in which we find ourselves.
The issue of suicide can’t be separated from larger issues of mental health, which is why campuses can be particularly risky environments. College can be a wonderful experience, but brings stresses and obligations that are generally new to young people.
Many college students have ADHD; many students are on medications or self-medicate; alcohol is abundant; and many kids are stressed, anxious, or depressed. Over 90 percent of completed suicides can be linked to some type of mental disorder, like those mentioned above. Put in the added pressure of paying tuition, perhaps working a job, taking care of families, and getting good grades, and many young people find themselves in crisis.
So how do you spot a potential suicide, and what do you do if you’re struggling? Unfortunately, many of the warning signs of suicide reflect the daily worries of any teen or young adult. Obviously, if someone mentions suicide, that person should be taken seriously and encouraged to get help. A history of psychological problems that seem to worsen can be a sign. Alcohol or substance abuse or a sense of hopelessness or nihilism might be a tip off. If someone is acting erratically and has the means for harming oneself nearby — pills, guns, etc., — then it’s worth talking to that person and encouraging help.
I always knew Kelsey had psychological issues, and I talked to him about it all the time — “all you do is bitch and moan” he said to me often. Still, I couldn’t predict how bad he felt, how weary and hopeless he was. If you feel that way, or someone you know does, try to talk to them. It’s not weak to ask for help, to simply say “I’m stressed out” or “I don’t know what to do.”
The UH Counseling Center is trained to help out college students. Talk to your family, your friends, a mentor, a counselor, whomever. Silence can, in fact, be deadly. Stay away from guns and other means of harming yourself. As bad as you feel, things will change. It won’t always be easy, and life will always throw you some curveballs.
The world isn’t full of unicorns and rainbows, but there are people who care about you, and want you around. And we don’t need any more “survivors.”
Robert Buzzanco, Ph.D., is a UH history professor.