Preventing Suicide on College Campuses
Traditionally, campus gatekeepers are those people-such as resident life staff, academic advisors, faculty, and health center staff-who come into contact with students. After receiving training on suicide prevention and warning signs, these gatekeepers connect with students in distress and refer them to mental health professionals.
"A big part of suicide prevention involves getting people into treatment," said SAMHSA's Richard McKeon, Ph.D., M.P.H., Special Advisor on Suicide Prevention at CMHS. "Predicting suicide with certainty is not possible, but assessments are possible. Gatekeepers help in that first critical step toward counseling."
Just 18 percent of those who commit suicide report suicidal ideation to a health professional prior to their deaths, according to the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action. (See SAMHSA News online, Fall 2002.)
If students aren't talking to campus counselors-and aren't receiving help elsewhere-other people may recognize the warning signs of suicide and steer affected students toward professional help.
For example, Dr. Reibling recalled a student employee who seemed to be having problems. Always on time before, the student was arriving chronically late, and her appearance had deteriorated. In her gatekeeper role, Dr. Reibling caught up with the student to talk.
As it turned out, the student was struggling to get by in a class and wasn't feeling supported by her family. "She just needed extra attention," Dr. Reibling explained, noting that the two visited the Counseling Center, and the girl ended up dropping the problematic class. "The outcome isn't always this easy. She just needed to know I was there to listen, and I cared enough to get her help."
That's the premise of gatekeeper training.
"We don't want gatekeepers to be therapists," said Cory Wallack, Ph.D., Staff Therapist at the SU Counseling Center. "A gatekeeper's first task is to connect to students and help students feel supported. Then, a gatekeeper helps to increase the likelihood that students will follow through with referrals to the Counseling Center. Because it's a trusted person telling them, 'You know, I really think you should do this. Get some help.' "
Gatekeeper training is so important that it's one of the objectives of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention-a strategy in which SAMHSA plays a key role.
"Many young adults will not seek out interventions or counseling by adults unless they feel that they can trust the adult to maintain respect, confidentiality, and provide knowledge and appropriate information," said Dr. McKeon. "So, it makes sense to train those school personnel who are most likely to come in contact with students at risk."
All told, staff at colleges and universities operating under SAMHSA's Campus Suicide Prevention grants trained more than 10,000 lay gatekeepers successfully during the first year of the program.
SU has trained about 300 resident life and health center staff in 3-hour sessions. There are plans to train academic advisors and counselors in the near future. UC Irvine has trained 2,200 gatekeepers in just 2 years, with school staff members, campus police, and even some students learning how to relate to young people in crisis.
SU has even worked with 10 other schools receiving SAMHSA Campus Suicide Prevention grants to train additional staff members about their Campus Connect gatekeeper training program.
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