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The University of Texas at Austin Division of Student Affairs

be that one suicide prevention program

How to Help: Suicide Prevention and BeVocal

BeVocal is a university-wide bystander intervention initiative that promotes the idea that individual Longhorns have the capacity to prevent high-risk behavior and harm.

Bystander Intervention is recognizing a potentially harmful situation or interaction and choosing to respond in a way that could positively influence the outcome. BeVocal has 3 steps. We'll be focusing specifically on how these steps can be used for helping students who are experiencing thoughts of suicide. These steps include:

  1. Recognize Potential Harm
  2. Choose to Respond
  3. Take Action

Step 1. Recognize Potential Harm

To first help an individual who's experiencing thoughts of suicide, you need to recognize the self-induced harm that's occurring. Potential harm means that an individual is displaying warning signs for suicide. Although behavior, thoughts and feelings varies among people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide, there are common warning signs that may suggest a person is considering suicide. It is especially important to notice these warning signs as a way to recognize potential harm.

Warning signs include:

  • Talking about or making plans for suicide
  • Expressing hopelessness about the future
  • Displaying severe/overwhelming emotional pain or distress
  • Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior (such as changes in alcohol or other substance abuse or use), particularly in the presence of the warning signs above. Specifically, this includes significant:
    • Withdrawal from or changing in social connections/situations
    • Changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
    • Anger or hostility that seems out of character or out of context
    • Recent increased agitation or irritability

The more signs you notice, the higher risk the person may be. In addition, individuals may give direct as well as indirect verbal cues about their suicidal thoughts. These cues typically communicate feelings of being trapped, helpless, and/or hopeless. Direct verbal cues are clear statements expressing suicidal thoughts, such as "I'm thinking about killing myself," while indirect verbal cues serve more as hints that someone is thinking about suicide. These can be statements like

  • "I would be less of a burden on my family if I'm not here anymore."
  • "The pain will never stop unless I do something,"
  • "I want to go to sleep and never wake up."

Students may express these verbal cues on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. No matter which method the student uses to express these verbal cues, they should always be taken seriously. To learn more about the warning signs, go here.

Step 2. Choose to Respond

The second step is to choose to respond. When choosing to respond you need to overcome any fear and worry you may have associated with talking to people having thoughts of suicide. There are a number of barriers that you might need to get past to be motivated and willing to intervene. These can include:

Barriers to Intervene

  • "I'm sure someone else will do something, so I don't need to."
  • "I'm not responsible, it's someone else's problem."
  • "No one else thinks this is a problem so it's not a big deal."

Motivations to Intervene

To overcome these barriers, it is important to think about the many reasons to help. These can include:

  • "I care about the person being impacted."
  • "I'm afraid of what will happen if I don't do anything."
  • "I'll feel better knowing I did something."
  • "I would want someone to help me if I was in that situation."

Step 3. Take Action

Your job is not to be the student's therapist, but instead to help them connect with a counselor who can continue the conversation with them that you started. It is important to understand that taking some form of action is better than doing nothing. No one form of action is better than the other. But for the purpose of preventing suicide, you're highly encouraged to take a direct approach when supporting the student.

Direct Action is an overt or active approach to intervening that requires direct articulation or expression of concern with the situation. When you're ready to talk directly with the student, make sure to create a safe environment for the both of you. Talk in a quiet, private place where you're unlikely to be interrupted.

Check in with the student. Tell them directly why you're concerned about their mental health. List the warning signs for suicide that you've recognized in their behavior. Then ask them directly if they're experiencing thoughts of suicide. For example, try saying to them:

  • "Sometimes when students go through stuff like you just told me, they have thoughts of suicide. Is this happening for you?"
  • Or, "I've been noticing you acting out in ways that concern me. Sometimes when people act this way, they're having thoughts of suicide. Is this happening for you? "

You will not increase the person's risk for suicide by asking them directly about it. On the contrary, if they are feeling suicidal, being direct will help them recognize that there are people who care. When someone is thinking of suicide, they typically welcome the chance to talk about the pain they're feeling.

Be patient and supportive. You may not be able to understand how they're feeling, and it may seem uncomfortable or awkward to discuss personal and emotional issues. That's ok. Allow them to express whatever they're feeling. Your role is not to counsel them through this crisis, but to be a good listener who's not judgmental. Listen in a way that shows empathy and compassion. Encourage the student to talk to someone who can help, such as a mental health professional. You can say things like:

  • "It sounds like you're in a lot of pain and that you're really struggling right now. Thank you for trusting me to tell me about it. Have you thought about speaking to someone at the Counseling and Mental Health Center?"
  • "I care about you and I want to help. But I can't help you by myself. Would you consider talking to a counselor?"

Let them know it's OK to get help. Mental health problems are treatable and manageable once identified. Sometimes we need a mental health check-up just like we need physical ones. Let the person know that reaching out for support is the first step to feeling better. Some people may be reluctant to reach out for help. Our backgrounds, cultures and experiences can have a huge impact on how we view help seeking. Some people may come from families or cultural backgrounds where asking for help or seeking a mental health professional is shunned or thought of as weak.

If you take action to support the student and they don't respond positively, that's ok. Still continue to express support. If you continue to notice warning signs of distress or suicide occurring with the student, call the Behavior Concerns Advice Line (BCAL) to get additional support and to let another person on our campus know about the student. Remember too, that ou can call BCAL at any point you're worried about a student. You don't need to wait until they're experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Finally, always follow up. Most people in distress feel like a burden and are unlikely to bring up the issue again. So, it is important to let the student know that you are still thinking about them and that you still care about them. Sometimes it can be helpful to schedule a follow up meeting with them in advance. You can say something like "Tomorrow evening I will check in with you to see how your visit to the Counseling and Mental Health went."

Please note, that while it is rare, there are some situations where contacting emergency help is vital. You should take immediate action and call 911 if you notice the student:

  • Has a weapon and is threatening to use it. If this is the case, make sure you leave the area immediately for your own safety.
  • Is threatening immediate harm to him/herself (e.g., jumping out of a window, stepping in front of traffic). In this situation, if you feel safe, we recommend staying with them till help arrives.
  • Has engaged in a behavior that requires medical attention (e.g., has taken pills). In the situation, we would also recommend that you stay with the person until help arrives, if you feel safe doing so.

If for any reason you're unable to directly help, there are still indirect ways you can take action.

Indirect Action, also known as a 'detour' approach, involving less visible forms of intervening by getting other people involved or connecting the person you're worried about to national/local/campus resources.

An example of an indirect action is calling the UT Behavior Concerns Advice Line (BCAL) or submitting a concern online at their website to seek advice on how to help. You can also get other trusted people involved who can speak to the student on your behalf. This could mean sharing your concerns as needed with your friend's partner, family, Resident Assistant, clergy member, academic advisor, supervisor, faculty/staff, etc. It is important not to keep your concerns to yourself, reach out to campus resources that can help.

Whatever way you decide to help, please do something. Taking action can save a person's life.

Step 4. Read about the Mental Health Research and Suicide Prevention Initiative