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May brings high risk of suicide among high school and college students

May brings high risk of suicide among high school and college students

It's that time of the year. The time of the year when the pressures of grades, final papers, home stresses and uncertainty about the future combine with…

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It's that time of the year. The time of the year when the pressures of grades, final papers, home stresses and uncertainty about the future combine with youthful angst to create life-threatening hazardous conditions.

The time of year when my teacher and professor friends are happy the school year is almost over but lamenting the number of students in their classes who are missing finals because they've been hospitalized with stress-related ailments or full-blown depression.

It's not something that people like to talk about -- teen and young adult suicide -- because as a society we mostly like to think about happy, carefree, post-graduation summer days with the whole world on a platter and all of life ahead of us. But May is one of the deadliest times of the year for high school and college students alike.

Incredibly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students -- 1,100 undergraduate and graduate students a year -- and the third leading cause of death among all youth 15 to 24 years old in the United States. Only accidents and homicides claim more young lives.

I wouldn't have known that if Kate Maloney, a chapter coordinator with Active Minds, a national nonprofit organization operating on college campuses to educate people about the warning signs of suicide in students, hadn't reminded me about my own classroom experiences with depressed teens.

The seven Active Minds chapters on Illinois college campuses, like the other 200 campus chapters, are singularly focused on making honest talk about mental health issues a socially acceptable thing.

"More than half of all college students have had suicidal thoughts, and one in 10 seriously consider suicide," Kate told me, "but only half of those who seriously consider suicide ever get counseling."

At a north suburban high school district, my closest teacher friend saw no fewer than three of his own students hospitalized for depression in the week before finals -- and, arguably, those students were the lucky ones, the ones who got help.

Who can blame these young people for feeling so desperate? The pressure is on: To hear adults tell it, college will either be the key to their success or the architect of their financial ruin.

They're watching their own parents struggle with the devastating effects of the worst recession any of them have lived through: unemployment, home foreclosure, stress-induced divorce.

These students are either terrified of not being able to pay for college or of graduating into a completely decimated job market. And even among those students who are not graduating yet, those same pressures make them less likely to finish.

Am I painting a grim enough picture for you?

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Good, because awareness is half the battle.

"The most troubling thing about suicide is that it's so preventable," Kate told me. "It's just a matter of looking for the signs and reaching out."

Top suicidal warning signs include talking about suicide or death in general, talking about "going away" or feeling hopeless, and an observable change in normal behavior like losing the desire to do favorite things or be with close friends or family.

And if you're worried?

"Most schools have help available in the school or on campus," Kate said, "but the best thing to do is call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1 (800) 273-TALK, where they'll connect you to a local crisis center in your area."

It's May, the sun is finally staying out past dinnertime, and the flowers are in bloom, but there is still much darkness -- and it's all our jobs to look for it.

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