The top half of the newspaper’s front page features only the image of a noose, tied taut, hanging over the masthead. Beneath it, the main headline of the related story is summed up in a single word: Suicide.
In a recent issue of The Eagle News, the student newspaper at Florida Gulf Coast University, top editors Allison Gagliardi, Megan Hoolihan, and Mike Ricci sought to raise awareness about the alarmingly high number of college students who commit suicide each year. Depending on how related data is gathered and interpreted, the taking of one’s own life is often cited as the leading or second-leading cause of death among undergraduates nationwide.
“I can list statistics and facts and figures all day long, but unless you’ve gone through it yourself it’s not going to really get to you,” said Ricci, Eagle News managing editor. “If you really see the first-person accounts of someone who has been there, who has had those feelings of suicide, that’s when you kind of put yourself in their shoes. It makes people realize just how real it is.”
In that spirit, Ricci put together the paper’s main report on the student suicide phenomenon late last month, noting it is “too common on college campuses across the country.” In the piece, Ricci tells the stories of those who have grappled with and gotten past suicidal thoughts and actions such as cutting, and others still dealing with the fallout from the suicide of someone close to them.
“The person who does it never feels the pain directly,” said an FGCU student who lost a friend and classmate to suicide. “It’s the community who feels the pain. When someone takes their own life, you don’t expect it, so it’s almost like taking a sucker punch from Mike Tyson right in the gut.”
In the Q&A below, Ricci discusses what he discovered about students’ suicide triggers, plans, related symptoms, and available help. He also offers advice to student journalists considering tackling a related report.
Q: During your reporting, what did you find about suicide among students that surprised you?
A: I didn’t realize just how common it really was. Based upon a study I found that I ended up citing in my article . . . suicide is in fact the leading cause of death [among students] if you separate alcohol-related vehicle accidents from non-alcohol-related accidents. I wasn’t aware of that. I thought it was lower down the list, because people don’t really report about it as much.
[It’s also surprising] how many people have a suicide plan in case something goes wrong in their lives. About one in 12 students has a suicide plan. When I relate that to my school, which has a little over 12,000 students, you’re looking at roughly 1,000 students who have a suicide plan. That’s 1,000 kids I could be friends with who have suicide plans, that at any time know the means they would take their own life if it came down to that. That was a statistic that stood out to me.
Q: What is a suicide plan?
A: The biggest thing with a suicide plan is they have the intention. They want to do it and have the means to do it. So if their plan is to shoot themselves, they have a gun. . . . If you have the intention, you have the means, you have the date set [such as] ‘I’m going to do it on the anniversary of the day my boyfriend broke up with me.’ They know exactly when. If they know specifics, that’s when they are at a higher risk of a suicide attempt. It’s very easy to think ‘Wow, my life’s not going too well. I wonder if things would just be easier . . .’ but not actually go through with it. If a student actually knows what they would do, how they would do it, and when they would do it, they are at a higher risk for it.
Q: Are there any other telltale signs to watch for among students wrestling with suicidal thoughts?
A: A big one is if they start giving away their possessions. That’s a sign that they may have started planning . . . for when they’re not there. So if they say, ‘Here’s my iPad, I want you to have it,’ something might be up there. Also, it’s a common myth that people who are suicidal don’t talk to people about it. That’s very false. Generally, people who do plan on committing suicide don’t exactly want to, but they just don’t see a way out. So they drop the signs, hoping that someone will come to their rescue, for lack of a better term. They might say something like, ‘I wonder what it would be like if I just went to sleep and never woke up.’
Q: What are the triggers that might lead students to consider suicide?
A: The majority of people who consider suicide have untreated psychological disorders, whether it be depression or bipolar disorder. Maybe college kids are kind of stubborn, you know, ‘I’m fine. I don’t need help.’ When it goes untreated, it’s only going to get worse for them. Substance abuse is another big thing. If you don’t have hope and you start mixing alcohol and drugs to that it’s going to seem like you have no other options. The counselor I spoke to, he said it could prove to be a deadly mixture.
In terms of college students, the big thing is just the transition. They’re on their own. A lot of times they’re dealing with their own finances [for the first time, along with] the college workload and maybe relationship struggles. These little things can all add to the general stress of college, and some students may not be able to handle that.
Q: What advice do student survivors have for their peers who may be in a dark place?
A: [The students he featured in his article] all said, ‘Regardless of how you’re feeling, you are not alone. There is someone out there who is dealing with the same kind of struggles and is feeling just as low about themselves as you are.’ A lot of times people are having these thoughts because they feel alone, that there’s no one in their lives who they can turn to. But in reality, especially on college campuses, there are a ton of resources. Every college has a counseling center for people. If you’re in college, go see a counselor. It’s what they’re trained [to deal with]. It’s what they like to do. They want to help you. That’s what they’re there for. People don’t necessarily realize that.
Q: From a journalism perspective, what were the challenges of reporting and presenting your story? Any advice for student journalists considering a related report of their own?
A: It’s very, very important to verify your facts. If it’s questionable, verify it. That’s why I like to record all my interviews, especially on this type of subject. The worst thing you can do when someone’s pouring their heart out to you about a time when they felt suicidal is to misquote them. . . . So if I had any questions I just emailed the people I interviewed and said, ‘Hey can you confirm these facts for me?’ They were more than happy and very appreciative of that, especially because they wanted to make sure everything was accurate as well.
In terms of the design, it was definitely a very bold front page, something we have never done before. We had some questions about whether it was going to be offensive to people. And I think that yes, some people may have found it offensive. But the point of it was to have people pick it up and read it and have it help bring awareness to the topic. So while initially they may feel like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s kind of insensitive of them to do that’ in the end it’s all in the best interest of spreading awareness on this subject. Walking around on campus, I saw more issues out than our normal ones. Everyone was picking it up and reading it. I think it’s hard to walk by a front page with just a noose hanging down, top of the fold, without at least being curious what the article is about.
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