Why Colleges Need to Train Professors on How to Talk About Suicide

This piece was written as part of our Disability Justice on Campus Day of Action campaign.

CW: discussion of suicide


Dear Professors,

Stop mentioning suicide. At least when you don't have to. Every professor I have had since my brother's suicide has mentioned suicide in one way or another. Every professor for two years. Some of these comments have been relatively benign, but others were much worse. One professor said, “Kill yourself,” to a room of 300 students.

Another professor blamed his entire class for student suicides, saying we didn't care enough about one another.

I don't mean for the word to never be spoken, I simply mean for it to be used only in serious contexts. Keep the unit on cultural views toward violence, including suicide. Leave the off-handed remark about how rough your morning was. Basic rule of thumb -- if you can get your point across without using a term that could hurt others around you greatly, do so.

Avoiding triggers is not a matter of simple convenience for those of us living with traumatic pasts
and/or PTSD. When the aforementioned professors said, out of the blue, “Kill yourself,” it ruined my day. Even though it was brought up in conversation, even though he immediately said, “Don't kill yourself," even though it had been almost a year since my brother's death. After the comment, I immediately started crying, had to leave class, and skipped the following lab. I had to go home and calm down-- a process that takes at least a day. It would have been easy for this professor not to use such a phrase. Whatever your opinion on triggers and trigger warnings are, it is undeniable that some words dramatically affect those who hear them. Schools are, primarily, a place of learning.

I had a day of learning stolen from me by one simple word.

Perhaps you think I need to get over it and learn to live in the real world. Believe me, I would love
nothing more. My therapist, medication, and I work toward that goal every day. And I don't need more practice. Suicide is mentioned in almost every TV show, movie, and book-- in hand gestures, and exclamations and ads.

Part of the blame for my professors' behavior must go to the school. The administration needs to train all staff on mental health concerns, including trigger words. The school already has a platform for such training. It simply needs to be used. Teach professors how to respond to students just returning from all types of leaves, how to respond to disability accommodation requests, and how to teach students of varying mental health. Teachers come from a wide range of background and knowledge.

It is time for the university to implement a required training for all instructors, professors, and administrators working with students to teach the importance and complexities of trigger words.

I know my school cares about its students. I have seen this in the leave policy, in the ever increasing fund for Counseling and Psychological Services, in the perks and benefits they are always trying to give students. I also know my professors care about us students. They try their best to teach, give out any accommodations they think are fair, and email us whenever they can. But there are many ways in which the administration is failing. One of these is not listening to students. Students have voiced their concerns-- giving many small, effective suggestions that are never implemented. Perhaps because the suggestions never reach the people who could implement them. In addition to asking for student opinions, the school must prepare, perhaps by hiring someone whose sole job it is to get those suggestions to the right department and staff member. I'm sure my suggestion will follow a similar path. So if you are a professor please educate yourself about trigger words and your university's policies regarding accommodations you can make for students in different situations.

A student just trying her best, who knows you are too

Stefanie Kaufman