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Leiden University joins national 113 campaign: ‘It’s okay to feel uncomfortable about talking about suicide’

Talking about suicide is important, but anything but comfortable. To make this difficult subject easier for students and staff to discuss, the university is organising a campaign week in line with the national campaign ‘1K Z1E J3’ (I see you) being run by Stichting 113 Zelfmoordpreventie (113 is the phone number of the Dutch helpline). ‘The worst thing you can do is not talk about it.’

People die through suicide every day in the Netherlands, and among young people aged between 10 and 25, it’s the number one cause of death. And yet, the subject is still shrouded in taboo. Even though research has shown that talking about suicidal thoughts helps and might even save lives.

Leiden University is keen to create a safe, healthy and engaged community for all its staff and students. ‘But unfortunately, in our university too, it happens that staff members or students see no future for themselves in life’, says Hester Bijl, Rector Magnificus. ‘Let’s keep an eye out for each other and start a conversation if we see someone in difficulties. I sincerely support the Stichting 113 initiative. It’s important to encourage those around people with suicidal thoughts to start the difficult conversation about that.’

Conversation cookies

The university plans to highlight tough subjects such as suicide, depression and despair through a number of events in the week following World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September. For example, there will be a lecture on suicide prevention with researchers from Stichting 113 Zelfmoordpreventie and Marieke Liem, Professor Violence and Interventions. Also, throughout the week, ‘conversation cookies’ and yellow ribbons will be distributed at various faculties by way of icebreakers, to ask someone how they’re doing. The yellow ribbons are a symbol of hope, to show that you want to help prevent people from ending their own lives, lonely and desperate. Students and staff will also have the opportunity to practice having difficult conversations on a special 113 bench at Plexus Student Centre. 

‘Dare to keep asking questions about suicide, even if it becomes very concrete.’

The campaign week ties in with the national ‘1K Z1E J3’ campaign being run by Stichting 113 Zelfmoordpreventie. Leiden University has been collaborating with the organisation for some time now. It’s crucial that universities focus on this subject, according to Renske Gilissen, research manager for Stichting 113. ‘Because we’re seeing an upward trend in the number of suicides among young adults. There is no one solution, unfortunately, since there’s rarely just one cause behind suicide; it’s different for everyone. It’s simply a very complex problem. But the worst thing you can do is not talk about it. That’s why it’s so important that in addition to parents, lecturers and student counsellors can also start the conversation about suicide. Dare to keep asking questions, even if it becomes very concrete. You can take a free online training on our website. And if you’re concerned, you can also go to a family doctor together or phone 113 anonymously.’

Monique Kavelaars (Stichting 113) and professor Marieke Liem at the 1K Z1E J3 bench in The Hague

Benches on campus

During the campaign week and the weeks that follow, 1K Z1E J3 benches will be placed at various university buildings: a place to take time for each other and hear how someone’s really doing. This summer, the FGGA was the first faculty at Leiden to place an 1K Z1E J3 bench in the garden of the Wijnhaven in The Hague building. You can recognise the benches by the gold-coloured plaque with the text: ‘Een goed gesprek begint met iemand écht zien.’ (‘A good conversation starts with really seeing someone.’)

But a bench is not enough to make talking about negative feelings or suicide easy. Students and staff who take a seat on the 1K Z1E J3 bench in the courtyard of Plexus Student Centre around midday on 11 September can have a chat with the guys from We zien mekaar (We See Each Other). This is a foundation set up by a group of friends from Leiden University who were unexpectedly confronted by suicide not once, but twice. They lost their friend Ian in 2016 and last year, another friend, Martin, also died suddenly by suicide. The group of friends hopes to keep the memories of Ian and Martin alive, through the foundation, and to encourage discussion about mental health among young people.

Tim Zuidberg and Arie van der Deijl (We zien mekaar)

‘You don’t see it on the outside’

‘Our goal is contributing to a generation that talks about how they’re really doing’, says the foundation’s Chair, Tim Zuidberg. ‘At the time, we had no idea that both Ian and Martin were struggling with life. If you don’t notice any signs on the outside, you don’t feel much urgency to talk about things when in fact, the urgency might be very real.’

So the friends invite students and staff members to join them in brainstorming about how to start a conversation on how you're doing, or if you’re worried about someone or you yourself are struggling with negative feelings. ‘And naturally, you’re also more than welcome to come and sit with us if you’re feeling absolutely great’, says committee member Arie van der Deijl. ‘Above all, we hope to help raise awareness about how important it is to share how things are going, even if you’re struggling with unpleasant feelings.’

Young men generally talk about their plans for the weekend and football results, and the question ‘How are you doing?’ is invariably answered with ‘Fine’.

A listening ear

And as the friends know from experience, that’s not easy. Young men generally talk about their plans for the weekend and football results, and the question ‘How are you doing?’ is invariably answered with ‘Fine’. Their advice for breaking through this is for example to ask how the past period has been for someone and what kinds of things they’ve done. ‘And in conversations with others, we’re often inclined to offer all sorts of solutions’, says Van der Deijl. ‘So someone tells you about a problem, and you say: “Okay, but have you tried this, or that? But sometimes, that’s not at all what someone wants. Sometimes all they want is a listening ear.’

What if students and staff find it uncomfortable to sit on one of those benches and talk about negative feelings or suicide? ‘Well, that would be perfectly understandable’, says Zuidberg. ‘Because we feel exactly the same. And it’s all right for these conversations to feel like that: they actually need a kind of vulnerability. Something that might help: we’re not professionals either. We’re just a group of guys of around 30 who just happen to have experienced this. Who knows, maybe we can learn from each other.’

‘1K Z1E J3’ campaign week programme - 11 to 15 September

  • Throughout the week, conversation cookies will be handed out at various faculties and university buildings. If you think someone needs to talk, use the cookie as a way to ask how they’re doing.
  • there someone you’re worried about, but you find it difficult to start up a conversation about negative feelings? If so, take a seat on the 1K Z1E J3 bench in the Plexus Student Centre courtyard between 11:00 and 13:00 on 11 September and practise with the friends from Stichting We zien mekaar.
  • On 12 September, at 12:00, Stichting 113 Zelfmoordpreventie is holding a lecture on suicide prevention in the Wijnhaven building in The Hague together with Marieke Liem, Professor Violence and Interventions. During the event, you’ll gain more insight into important facts and figures about suicide and practical solutions. 
  • This autumn, the university is joining Stichting 113 Zelfmoordpreventie in organising a webinar for study advisers, managers and well-being officers, for example. The webinar will deal with the questions of how you can support others and start a conversation. More information will follow soon.
  • Following the campaign, the university is offering ‘Gatekeeper’, a suicide prevention training course. Staff members and student counselors who want to further develop their skills in the field of suicide prevention can get in touch with secretariaat@sea.leidenuniv.nl.

Do you yourself need help?

If you are having suicidal thoughts or are worried about someone else, talking can help. Chat with 113 at www.113.nl or call them on 0800-0113. Conversations with 113 are anonymous and confidential. You can also contact 113 if you don't speak Dutch.

Is your life in danger? Call 112 immediately.

If there’s anything else you’d like to talk about, get in touch with our student psychologists. They offer short-term counselling for both study and personal problems. Please note: for diagnosis or long-term help, please get in touch with your family doctor for a referral.

Text: Evelien Flink
Banner photo: Stichting 113 Zelfmoordpreventie

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