for Faculty: Suicidal Student Scenario
Renee, a graduate student, has just failed two sections of her qualifying exams. She has been depressed for the past several years and this was exacerbated when she came to graduate school as she has felt quite different from her peers coming from a small town and a family where she is the first to seek an advanced degree. Her advisor Dr. Johnson is concerned that she has missed some classes and is not applying herself to improve her standing in the program. Yesterday though Dr. Johnson received an email from Renee stating “everything feels so hopeless; I have no future; no one has any confidence in me; I certainly don’t have any in myself”.
Dr. Johnson: I’m glad we could meet during office hours because I wanted to ask you privately about the email you sent me and find out more about how you are feeling. You have missed class four times in the past two weeks and you appear distressed to me when I’ve seen you in class. I imagine you are concerned about not passing two sections of your qualifying exams and I would like to figure out a way I can provide some support. How are you doing?
Renee: Okay, but I’m kind of tired and stressed out.
Dr. Johnson: How do you mean? Can you tell me more about that?
Renee: I don’t know. I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning and I can’t concentrate or get going on my work. I feel like a failure. I also feel embarrassed to be telling you this.
Dr. Johnson: I appreciate your willingness to tell me about how you are feeling. I know a lot of students might be uncomfortable doing that but I see it as a healthy thing to do. Do you think you might be depressed?
Renee: Maybe, but I should be able to get my work done anyway. I don’t want to make any excuses. I should be able to handle this on my own.
Dr. Johnson: If you are depressed you wouldn’t have the same energy and attention you would normally have to get your work done. Despite your best efforts you might not still be able to perform as well as you would if you weren’t depressed. Also there might be reasons for feeling depressed that could be addressed. Things could get better with the right help and support.
Renee: Well, I need to do better but I don’t see how.
Dr. Johnson: You seem to be feeling kind of helpless. I was concerned about what you said in your email when you referred to having no future. What do you mean by that?
Renee: If I am not able to finish this program I’ll be a total failure. My life is pretty meaningless anyway. It’s always a huge struggle. I’m about ready to give up.
Dr. Johnson: It’s hard to have any optimism right now about getting through this. Has it ever gotten to where you think about not wanting to live, about ending your life?
Renee: I don’t really see the point. It’s so hard to keep going. I keep letting everyone down and I don’t know if anyone really cares about me. Everyone has their own stuff going on and why would they care about me? If I can’t be successful with my academic goals what is there for me?
Dr. Johnson: Have you actually thought about ways to harm yourself? How worried are you that you might do something like that?
Renee: I’ve thought about it. Eventually, maybe before long, I’m going to have to give up. I haven’t yet but I do worry about it.
Dr. Johnson: I appreciate again that you are willing to tell me about how badly you have been feeling and I want to help. Perhaps we can figure out some ways to treat your depression and the reasons for feeling depressed. In the meantime we can look at some options for how to support you with your academic goals so that you will have the opportunity to still be successful. This might mean making some adjustments in your curriculum or maybe taking some time off. We can figure out what is in your best interests and what would work best all around. I think it would be very important though for you to talk with a therapist at CAPS to assess if you are depressed and find out how that can be treated. Would you be willing to go over to CAPS and meet with a therapist there?
Renee: Would that really help? I’ve been feeling this way for a long time.
Dr. Johnson: I personally know of some other students who have been helped quite a bit at CAPS. I would be willing to walk over with you if you thought that would help. They might also have some ideas about how we can best support you if you were willing to have them communicate with us about that. Of course what you discuss with them is confidential and there is no cost to you.
Renee: I guess that would be okay. How soon would you want me to be seen at CAPS?
Dr. Johnson: They have walk in appointments and we can arrange for someone to see you today. Also I would like to know that you have followed up at CAPS and are getting the right kind of help and are safe. I would like to follow up with you and check in with how you are doing. I think things can get better for you.
Renee: That’s fine. Thank you for being concerned.
Dr. Johnson, with Renee’s permission calls over to CAPS to give some background information about Renee’s current difficulties and particularly about her suicidal ideation. CAPS at this point begins working with Renee and develops a treatment and safety plan.