Talking about suicide can be challenging and awkward. How do you, as a concerned friend, overcome that barrier? “If someone had asked me: ‘I see you’re not doing well, do you ever think about death?’ I would have much less lonely,” says former Criminology student Selina.

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“Look, that’s where I was admitted.” Selina points to a gray building by the water, in a green residential area just outside Rotterdam. She continues walking toward a small park adjacent to the psychiatric institution where she spent a couple of months over a year ago. “I often took walks here. This was a ‘small get-away’.”

Selina had been struggling for a long time. She was very depressed and lost her zest for life. Suicide seemed more and more like a way out. That’s why she decided to get admitted. “There’s still a taboo on having suicidal thoughts,” says Selina. “I was ashamed of having those thoughts. And I couldn’t talk about them with anyone.” This greatly intensified the feelings of loneliness.

Research shows that one in six young people between 12 and 25 years old think about suicide at some point in their life. “Suicide is something that can happen to anyone,” says Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology Ruth Van der Hallen, who supervises Selina’s research at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB). “But we see that young people are particularly vulnerable to suicide.” This is partly because the adolescent brain is still developing. “That’s why it’s harder to assess consequences. It also makes you more impulsive.”

There are also many changes in young people’s lives. Changing friends, changing studies, it all plays a role: “It’s a more turbulent period in a person’s life. And combined with a developing brain, it results in more frequent suicidal thoughts and suicide compared to other groups.”

‘The only wrong way is not to bring it up at all’

The night before Selina was admitted, she was very suicidal. It wasn’t safe for her to be home alone. She asked three friends to come to her dorm room and wait with her for the crisis service. “From the moment we crossed Selina’s threshold that evening, it was clear what was going on,” recalls Daphne, sitting at the terrace of the Tante Nel snack bar in central Rotterdam. Junia adds: “You’re so afraid of bringing it up in the wrong way. The safe option is to leave it unspoken.” Then Selina laughs: “Actually, the only wrong way is not to bring it up at all.”

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Turning Point

During her admission, Selina felt increasingly worse. In December 2022, she attempte suicide. When she woke up in the intensive care unit, she felt worse than ever. “I was a shadow of myself,” she says, sitting on a bench in the park next to the clinic. But lying in the hospital, something changed. “I thought: ‘I will never let this happen to me again.’” Not only for herself but for others too: “I felt a strong urge to help others who feel the same. Even if it’s just one person.”

In early 2023, a cousin pointed out a funding opportunity for ‘research for and by young people’ from ZonMw. Young people could submit a research question related to mental health. Selina’s research question was clear: how can we make it easier for students to talk about suicide? In February 2023, Selina and researcher Ruth Van der Hallen submitted their proposal, which was soon approved. They received funding  and together, they are now researching ‘Conversations that Save Lives: Suicide Prevention for Students.’

In June 2024, after more than six months of hard work, a series of workshops will begin on the Woudestein campus. In the workshops, students will learn how to start a conversation if they are worried about a friend or classmate. “This is exactly what I missed myself,” says Selina. “We need to break the taboo. I truly believe it can make a big difference for people who feel this way if we can talk more easily about suicide.”

The first workshop will be held on Wednesday 12 Juni, between 11:00am and 12:30pm in the Living Room. You can find more information here.

On May 30 you can talk about suicide prevention with Wouter de Koning and Maarten van Ooijen at the Pelgrim Church in Delfshaven. More information can be found here.

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