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Spring brings blue skies, and a rash of suicides

McINNVILLE, Ore. — For most Oregonians, spring is the time when spirits lift. We’ve all made it through another dark, rainy winter.

But for some, the spring months can be deadly. As the daylight hours increase, many Oregonians head for the beach. Others contemplate suicide.

“Many researchers attribute the rise in suicide rates in the spring to the ‘broken promise effect,’” said Tanya Tompkins, a psychology professor at Linfield College. “The natural world is coming alive and that sense of renewal can be hard on people with suicidal inclinations. They’ve just weathered the winter, hoping spring would bring an end to their lethargy and depression. When it doesn’t, they feel devastated.”

A recent national multi-site study led by psychology researcher Jean Twenge points to rising levels of anxiety and depression in youth, and earlier studies show that more than half of all college students contemplate suicide at some point in their lives. In Oregon, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Oregonians aged 10 to 24.

“The transition to college brings all kinds of stresses for Oregon students,” Tompkins said. “Young people lose close connections to their families and face new academic and social pressures. They are sensitive to relationship breakups or fights with parents and friends. They suddenly have to do their own laundry and cook their own meals, which creates new demands on their time. And sometimes there’s just a general loss of social connectedness.”

And the slow march toward finals? “It can be the straw that breaks the student’s back,” said Tompkins, who chairs the Yamhill County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Tompkins said suicide rates decreased in the 1990s, but are now rising, as are rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other self-harming behaviors.

Colleges across the state are beginning to offer gatekeeper training, she said, to help improve the eyes and ears of faculty and resident advisors. “If there’s a decline in performance or attendance, it becomes the job of faculty to recognize signs of suicidal behavior and know how to respond.

“People should look for changes in behavior, for patterns of sleeping less or more, losing or gaining weight, or neglecting hygiene.”

Some young people withdraw, and if they are contemplating suicide they may drop hints, she said. They may engage in risky behavior, give away belongings or start drinking more, which increases risk. They often exhibit a general sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Although they may also use dark humor or talk about escape, others may tend to dismiss such talk and laugh it off.

Some people are secretive and exhibit few signs in the midst of a suicidal crisis, but most give off distress signals, she said. “If you notice signs of an imminent breakdown, it’s important to approach people and let them know you care.

“Ask if they’re upset about something,” Tompkins said. “Tell them you’re concerned and why. Allow them room to talk, and listen. Your reactions should depend on your comfort level, but if you are close to them and concerned, it’s better to be forthright. You can ask, ‘Are you feeling suicidal?’

“If we see someone who looks sick, we often ask if they are okay. But if someone is crying in the back of the bus, we tend to ignore them. There’s a sense that emotions are private.”

An overture can be a lifeline. “People are often relieved when someone acknowledges their pain,” Tompkins said. “The drive to commit suicide is cyclical for some, but for most a suicidal crisis is of limited duration, lasting 24−48 hours, which means you can often save a life if you can intervene and persuade them to get help.

“We have a strong instinct for survival, so even when an individual is contemplating suicide, there’s also an ambivalence,” she said. “Often, there’s an opportunity to change their mind. They want to be talked back from the edge.

“Some people assume that if you ask about suicidal intentions and the individual is simply stressed or experiencing depression, your inquiry will plant a seed that will make them more likely to consider suicide. That’s a myth.”

Even if they’re not suicidal, she said, you have still put yourself in a position to offer help. “But if you do offer help, you have to be ready to hear the answer, to engage with them and assist them in getting help.

“Within small populations like college or high school crowds, it’s important to have post-suicide plans in place to minimize contagion, with one suicide sparking another. This phenomenon seems specific to youth.”

College students share unique high-risk factors, but they also have more resources available to them than non-college students, Tompkins said. Most Oregon schools have strategies in place, and professors, resident advisors and coaches often provide support.

“Students experience a continuum of distress,” Tompkins said. “Some individuals have resilience to emotional pain, and for others, the coping mechanisms just break down.”

Tompkins co-authored the study, “Suicide and Life: Threatening Behavior (Does a Gatekeeper Suicide Prevention Program Work in a School Setting? Evaluating Training Outcome and Moderators of Effectiveness.”

Contact: Tanya Tompkins, tatompki@linfield.edu, 503-883-2684