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SAMHSA News - November/December 2007, Volume 15, Number 6


Preventing Suicide on College Campuses

By Leslie Quander Wooldridge

"I don't care. I don't really care about anything anymore."

Those red-flag words, even if they don't explicitly say "suicide," can be a troubled college student's only call for help.

Fortunately, from coast to coast, college campuses are more prepared than ever to provide assistance to students who are overwhelmed, depressed, and at risk for suicide.

SAMHSA's Campus Suicide Prevention grant program, administered by the Agency's Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), is helping more than 50 colleges and universities enhance services for students with mental and behavioral health problems.

Some SAMHSA grantees—such as the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), in Irvine, CA, and Syracuse University (SU) in Upstate New York—had suicide prevention programs in place before they received the grants. They have been using the funds to enhance their existing programs. Other grantees are using the funds to develop programs from the very beginning.

Grants for these programs are authorized under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act to provide schools with funds to help students complete their studies successfully. (For more on the Garrett Lee Smith Act, see "Campus Suicide Prevention Grants.")

All 55 of the grantees offer programs to train the campus community to recognize the warning signs of suicide, so that students in crisis can be referred for professional assessment. They also offer awareness programming to bring attention to the problem.

"When you identify somebody at risk, you need to go get help for this person," said Ellen Reibling, Ph.D., Director of Health Education at UC Irvine. "There's no 'let's wait and see' time."

Rebecca S. Dayton, Ph.D., Director of the SU Counseling Center, agreed. "Stigma is one of the biggest factors that contribute not just to suicide, but to any mental health problem," she said. "Universities are learning to educate the campus community, especially students, on how to identify times when they're struggling and how to get help."

Indeed, many young people are struggling. Across the Nation, the statistics are overwhelming. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people age 18 to 25, according to 2004 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Suicide also is strongly associated with mental illness and substance use disorders. For young people age 18 to 22, the rates of serious psychological disorders are 17.8 percent for those enrolled in college and 19.0 percent for others in that age group, according to SAMHSA's 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

"Suicide prevention is a priority area for SAMHSA," said Terry L. Cline, Ph.D., SAMHSA Administrator. "When schools promote mental health services, it makes a difference."

More than 30,000 adults age 18 or older die by suicide each year, according to the CDC. A 2006 report from SAMHSA's Office of Applied Studies also suggests that there may be between 8 and 25 attempted suicides for every suicide death. (See "Suicide Prevention Resources.")

With these statistics in mind, CMHS Director A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed., views suicide as a public health crisis. "The reality is that suicide is still greatly misunderstood and not accepted by the general public as something that we can prevent," she said. "We must build awareness to change that perception."

All of the grantees are working to build awareness. Grantees share suicide prevention knowledge with each other, and some offer classes to help students manage stress. But it is the gatekeepers who often serve as the link between professional counseling staff and students.

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