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Feeling depressed? Say something. Worried about a friend? Say something.

By Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson

If you need immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255).

The second most common cause of death for college students: Suicide.

On college campuses of all sizes and demographics, thousands of students are coping with mental health issues. The stress of college -- things such as relationships, friendships, academics, finances and transitioning away from home -- can intensify those issues and make some students feel like they just can't escape from their problems.

But there is help. There are answers. Things do get better. Thousands of other college students have successfully reached out for help -- and are glad that they did.

This weekend I wrote an article about the College of William and Mary, which has had three student suicides this calendar year. The university already had a number of prevention programs in place and the deaths prompted them to enact even more. (You can read the full article here.)

Over the past few weeks, I interviewed several William & Mary students who are dealing with their own mental health issues. Suicide is the most extreme outcome of a mental health illness, but there are many other scary consequences: Abusing drugs or alcohol, alienating friends, feeling alone, anxiety, getting sick, losing energy, making unhealthy decisions, dropping out of school.

The most difficult step is usually asking for help -- booking that first appointment, calling a help line, telling someone you trust that you aren't yourself.

"I didn't go for a long time and that was such a mistake," a William & Mary senior told me over coffee. "The biggest problem is not talking about it."

The students I interviewed said they were surprised by many things -- that they weren't the only students on campus needing some extra help, that they could keep their situation confidential, that sessions were free or inexpensive, that they could still succeed academically and socially while dealing with their issues, that their friends and relatives supported them getting help

"You realize this is just a small part of who I am. I'm not just depressed," a senior told me.

Call your campus health center right now and set up an appointment. At least give it a try.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255).

What else can be done to lower the number of college students and college-age people who commit suicide each year? We can look out for each other.

When it comes to mental health issues, the first line of defense often is usually not the counseling center or campus officials -- it's friends, professors, residence hall assistants, parents, coaches, classmates, teammates, co-workers, fellow club members, sorority sisters and fraternity brothers.

Here are some of the warning signs of suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

Observable signs of serious depression:
Unrelenting low mood
Pessimism
Hopelessness
Desperation
Anxiety, psychic pain and inner tension
Withdrawal
Sleep problems

Increased alcohol and/or other drug use

Recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks

Threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die

Making a plan:
Giving away prized possessions
Sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm
Obtaining other means of killing oneself such as poisons or medications

Unexpected rage or anger

Sometimes these symptoms are no different than actions considered part of the "normal" college experience, said Courtney Knowles, the executive director of the Jed Foundation, a New York-based group that seeks to prevent campus suicides. Students might be hesitant to tell school officials a friend might need help -- but it's better to take the chance than let a friend (or acquaintance) continue on without help.

Students shouldn't assume that someone else will say or do something. If you see a worrisome Facebook status, say or do something. If something worries you, say or do something. Don't wait for someone else to do it.

"This is serious. Having a mad friend is better than having a dead friend," he said. "The worse you get, the less likely you are to go out and get help."

Some more resources:

Half of Us
Half of Us is an initiative by the Jed Foundation and MTV to increase public dialogue about mental health issues. Its Web site tells you how to get help, live healthier, help a friend, screen yourself for depression and listen to the stories of celebrities who have successfully gotten help.

Jed Foundation's Guide for Parents
Just because a child goes off to college does not mean his or her mental health issues disappear -- or that new ones won't form. The Jed Foundation has put together a guide for parents of students in college, preparing for college and applying. There is also a section for parents on the foundation's Web site.

American Association of Suicidology Survivors of Suicide fact sheet

American College Health Association Mental Health Resources

Jed Foundation Campus Resources
The Jed Foundation has numerous resources for university and college officials looking to prevent suicide and promote healthy living on campus. That includes a campus prevention model, best practices and conferences.

And, again, if someone needs immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255).

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark http://washingtonpost.com/campus-overload. You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  | November 15, 2010; 12:21 PM ET
Categories:  News Overload  | Tags:  Mental health, William & Mary  
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