Important resources and guidance about student mental health

We write, as always near the semester’s end, to recognize your important role in looking out for students who may be in deep emotional distress and to thank you in advance for helping connect these students to the University’s mental health resources and supports.

December 13, 2017

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

We write, as always near the semester’s end, to recognize your important role in looking out for students who may be in deep emotional distress and to thank you in advance for helping connect these students to the University’s mental health resources and supports.

As a reminder, you can find contact information for all resources on the University Life website here, on the University Life app, and below.

Most importantly, if you believe a student is in immediate danger, call Public Safety—Morningside campus (212-854-5555); Manhattanville (212-853-3333); and CUMC, 212-305-7979, or NYC emergency services at 911.

Responding to a student who appears troubled but not in immediate danger can be challenging. The simplest and best advice is to take any concerns about suicide very seriously. Avoid offering assurances of complete confidentiality that you may not be able to honor, and avoid putting yourself in a situation in which you become the student's main source of support.

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No single formula can determine if someone is severely depressed or at risk for suicide, but these and similar behavioral "red flags" may warrant seeking professional assistance:

  • Dramatic changes in personality, presentation, hygiene, or functioning, including diminished concentration, extremely depressed mood; declining academic or work performance; agitation or, alternatively, extreme fatigue and sluggishness; radical changes in appetite or sleep patterns.
  • Expressions of helplessness, hopelessness or despair: "I feel like I'm in a hole and I can never get out. Things will never change."
  • Very diminished self-esteem; expression of chronic feelings of guilt, worthlessness.
  • Comments about suicidal thoughts, even if indirect: "I don't ever want to wake up again." "Everyone would be better off if I just died."
  • Talking about "not being around" or about death: "What's the difference? I won't be here anymore for finals."
  • High levels of anger, aggression, or, alternatively, flattening of emotional expression, profound indifference.
  • Reckless, risky, or impulsive behavior.
  • Thinking that is not grounded in reality; delusional expressions/remarks.

When these behavioral indicators are present, other factors can add urgency and may heighten risk, including these: a history of suicide attempts, social isolation, access to lethal means, and recent increases in life stressors, including the death of a loved one, romantic breakup, financial strain, academic problems, or serious health or family problems.

You can learn much more from the JED Foundation and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Stress, in and of itself, is not likely to result in suicidal behaviors; people regularly weather stress. Stress may, however, precipitate suicidal behaviors in someone who is already vulnerable.

You can help by recognizing a student's distress and facilitating a referral for treatment. Columbia’s counseling services are also available to talk with you about the emotional well-being of students, to brainstorm about the best means of helping, and to assume responsibility for care of students in crisis.

You can reach Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) at 212-854-2878 and CUMC Student Mental Health Services at 212-305-3400. The Dean of Students or Student Affairs in your school, or the Director of Undergraduate or Graduate Studies in your department, can also help you connect a student to support. Check the Faculty and Staff tab at the top of University Life’s website for contact information.

We thank you again for your help.

John H. Coatsworth 
Provost and Professor of International and Public Affairs and of History

Lee Goldman, MD 
Harold and Margaret Hatch Professor of the University 
Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine

Suzanne B. Goldberg 
Executive Vice President for University Life 
Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law

David Greenberg 
Executive Vice President 
University Facilities and Operations