'You can be impacted in a lot of ways by suicide': Understanding loss, how to help
In recent years, Michigan State has lost many students on campus to suicide — the second leading cause of death among college students, according to Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mental health awareness and education.
“Suicide and mental health is a public health concern,” said Talitha Easterly, the assistant director for outreach, multicultural initiatives and student engagement at the MSU Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS. “We all can get involved with being a part of supporting mental health on our campus and getting engaged in suicide awareness and prevention.”
Data from CAPS counseling screening for the 2018-19 school year shows that 44% of students reported some degree of suicidal ideation within a two-week period.
CAPS Director Mark Patishnock said there are a lot of factors that influence how students react to suicides happening in the university community.
“There’s varying degrees of public knowledge and awareness of these events in general,” Patishnock said.
Anna Tomlanovich, a member of the on-campus mental health group Project LETS, said there is always room for improvement when it comes to keeping the conversation going. She said every week should be Mental Health Awareness Week.
Mental Health Awareness Week, hosted by the Associated Students of Michigan State University, runs from Nov. 9 to Nov. 16, and aims to educate students and connect them to resources and support groups on campus.
“Mental health fluctuates all the time,” Tomlanovich said. “You can be someone that ... never really experienced anxiety or depression or anything like that, but something in your life could change.”
Students are impacted by suicide both directly and indirectly.
“It’s definitely a great loss, whether you’re close to them, you’re in their community, in their friend group or not,” Tomlanovich said. “You can be impacted in a lot of ways by suicide.”
Loss can be experienced directly by those who had a relationship with the individual or by those who knew of them. Indirect reactions are often triggered by past trauma or an unrelated loss that was previously experienced, Patishnock said.
“I think a lot of times, with the subject of suicide, it’s uncomfortable to talk about,” Tomlanovich said. “We don’t talk about it, but these lives should be talked about and should be honored because these are valuable lives that have been lost.”
Losing a loved one to suicide
Neuroscience senior Kyrsee Tingstad is a suicide loss survivor.
A suicide loss survivor experiences the grieving process differently and with more complexities due to the nature of the loss they experienced.
“You go through a lot of emotions because you feel like that person chose to leave you,” Tingstad said. “I struggled a lot with wondering what I could’ve done differently.”
Tingstad lost her brother — Bryan Earle Tingstad — to suicide shortly before moving to East Lansing while she was still a senior in high school. She received therapy the summer before coming to MSU as a freshman, but, she didn’t seek out on-campus counseling services until a couple of years into her college career.
“It takes the average person numerous years from the time that they start experiencing symptoms to when they actually ask for help,” Patishnock said.
It wasn’t until her senior year that she discovered MSU’s chapter of Project LETS. Project LETS is a national organization that offers peer support for mental healing, and aims to challenge the stigma associated with mental illness.
Tingstad began serving on the organization’s e-board at the start of the semester, and said she can’t help but stress the importance of finding a mental health support group within the community.
“I’ve been in that place where I didn’t even realize it existed,” Tingstad said. “I think there are a lot of students who would love to have a group like this, but don’t even know that they need it because they don’t know that it exists.”
In addition to Project LETS, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP, provided Tingstad with a chance to connect with people who are also suicide loss survivors. Tingstad has spoken at an AFSP panel and is still involved with the organization.
“They just create this really safe space where you feel open to talk about it,” she said. “One of the biggest things that makes it hard for me is that I feel like it’s not something that’s talked about enough.”
Tingstad said she hopes a chapter of AFSP starts up on MSU’s campus someday. To her, support from other suicide loss survivors was second to none.
“Those events were by far the most helpful thing — connecting with other people who understand exactly how you feel because dealing with losing someone to suicide is so different than any other kind of tragedy,” she said.
Tingstad said her passion for mental health and her desire to get into advocacy was because of her brother, and that she is working toward becoming a licensed therapist.
“My career choices are completely centered around my experiences with my own mental health and what I experienced with my brother, and I care more about my own mental health because of watching what he experienced,” she said. “I don’t think that I would really see how important it was to take care of yourself mentally if I didn’t witness first hand what can happen if you don’t.”
Tingstad remembers her brother for his love of reading, classic movies and music.
“I think that he belonged in the 1960s,” she said. “I think that he should have been 23 years old in the 1960s just because of everything that he loved.”
He loved “The Godfather” and was obsessed with Stephen King novels.
Tingstad remembers the little things about him, and how peaceful his energy was.
“I think that all of those things are the things that really defined him — not the way that he passed,” she said. “Those are the things that I remember about him.”
Services that can help
There are a variety of mental health resources here at MSU — from informal to formal, to immediate help and mobile access to after-hours crisis counselors.
If a student calls CAPS after regular hours, they are relayed to a crisis counselor.
CAPS Connect is for day-to-day issues and is meant to serve as a non-traditional, drop-in and informal consultation alternative to full screening. CAPS Connect is a great way to gauge your mental health while becoming aware of what services are available, Easterly said.
David Gates, a full-time crisis counselor, was hired by CAPS May 2019. Gates specializes in providing immediate help. Gates does not have an ongoing caseload of patients — like other counselors at CAPS do — and instead meets with individuals who are in crisis.
Gates is based at Olin Health Center, but he can reach students who are unable to commute to Olin via a mobile unit.
“It is hard to predict when a crisis will develop, and having one person who is a specialist in this position with dedicated weekly hours to meet this need is a positive addition to the organization,” Gates said in an email.
Currently, CAPS is looking to hire a critical incident response coordinator to fulfill this role in the evenings, weekends and if there is a campus tragedy.
“There’s typically a process where we try to deal with it ourselves, we go to friends or family … sometimes counseling may not be the first, immediate step that someone takes,” Patishnock said. “I generally know and trust that they’re getting some degree of service, they’re getting accessed, they’re gonna get connected. I tend to be more worried and more concerned about the students who aren’t coming in.”
Gates said he encourages students to take advantage of the services they need, and that there’s no judgement. He said everything that is discussed in counseling is confidential.
“I want to dedicate my own life to helping other people, even if I can just save one person that feels the way (my brother) felt,” Tingstad said. “Then that would all be worth it.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
CAPS Emergency Line: 517-355-8270
Sparrow Hospital in Lansing: 517-364-1000