SAMHSA’s Award-Winning Newsletter
March/April 2011, Volume 19, Number 2 

image of Boston University student “secrets”

Boston University: Revealing Secrets Can Help Students

What if you knew the secrets that troubled your friends, colleagues, and strangers on the street?

In 2010, the Boston University (BU) Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation gathered 1,000 anonymous messages from students in an effort to help students experiencing emotional pain understand that they are not alone.

Secrets Include . . .

“I don’t think anyone from here at school will miss me over the summer, because I haven’t really gotten that close to anyone here. I feel unspeakably pathetic about this.”

“I’m afraid to have kids because they might get my depression. But I think I would make a really great mother.” “Sometimes things have gotten so bad that I’ve seriously wanted to die. My mom is the only reason why I wouldn’t. I love you.”

Modeled after Frank Warren’s national PostSecret campaign, BU Secret is a critical part of BU’s mental health promotion and suicide prevention activities made possible by the SAMHSA Campus Suicide Prevention grant that BU received in 2009.

The Need for Community

BU is a large university with 16,000 undergraduates and 13,000 graduate students living on and off campus, which stretches a linear mile-and-a-half down both sides of busy Commonwealth Avenue.

“The actual physical layout of campus is not conducive to creating a sense of community immediately for students,” said Dori Hutchinson, Sc.D., the center’s Director of Services.

Lawrence E. Kohn, M.S., the center’s Director of Development agreed. “There’s an underbelly of community, but for some students, the campus can be very isolating and alienating.”

In addition, as on many college campuses, BU students have expressed feeling shame over talking about emotional or mental health problems, so Dr. Hutchinson and Mr. Kohn are focusing their efforts on raising awareness about campus mental health resources and encouraging students to talk about what they’re feeling.

“Creating a sense of community is a large aim of our SAMHSA grant,” said Dr. Hutchinson.

Sharing Secrets

BU Secret is the most visible activity BU is conducting to combat feelings of shame and raise awareness of mental health resources on campus, she said.

In 2010, the center mailed blank postcards to 8,000 undergraduates and asked them to write out an innermost secret, decorate the card, and return it.

The 1,000 cards received were divided among four highly trafficked residence halls and displayed for 2 weeks. “Students could read the cards and not feel so alone,” said Mr. Kohn. “They realize that so many others are walking around with pain.”

“Around the postcards, we listed in a ticker-tape style all of the mental health resources on campus,” Dr. Hutchinson said. The project has support on all levels of the university, from faculty to the Dean of Students to the Board of Trustees.

The project was done as part of the campus’ Active Minds activities, and as a result, BU was named the Chapter of the Year in 2009–2010. PostSecret creator Frank Warren is now working with the Active Minds national office to expand the program nationwide in an initiative called PostSecretU. (For more information about Active Minds, see SAMHSA News online, May/June 2009 and September/October 2010.)

Another BU Secret campaign is underway, with postcards slated for display in spring 2011. To see a video of the postcards, visit SAMHSA News online.

Student Support Network

Dr. Hutchinson and her team are working on multiple fronts to help BU students in distress. Knowing that most students in distress turn to friends rather than adults, the team used SAMHSA grant funds to start a training program called the Student Support Network.

In a program originally conceived by SAMHSA grantee Worcester Polytechnic Institute, students are trained to recognize signs of distress in other students. “Students learn to discern the difference between someone who’s having some troubles and someone who’s in imminent danger of hurting themselves and refer them to immediate help,” said Mr. Kohn.


In spring 2010, BU trained 30 students, and in fall 2010, an additional 45 students were trained. The goal for spring 2011 is to train nearly 60 students. “This is not a peer counseling training,” Mr. Kohn emphasized. “Students take the skills they learn out into their normal, daily interactions, which strengthen the culture of caring people on campus.”

BU recruits students from campus populations that are at higher risk for displaying signs of distress, said Dr. Hutchinson. Groups include international students (BU has the largest international student population of any university in the United States); gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students; student athletes; and those who participate in Greek life.

Depression Screenings

SAMHSA grant funds have also made possible two national depression screening days. The first year, BU screened 65 students; the second year, that number quadrupled to 233.

“Every person gets 3 to 5 minutes afterwards to talk privately, whether or not their screen showed they needed to be referred for treatment,” said Mr. Kohn. “We ask if there was something that made them come in or if they wanted to talk about anything specific.”

At both events, 30 percent of those screened were referred for further treatment. “And in the first year, we actually hospitalized someone who was experiencing suicidal thoughts,” Dr. Hutchinson said. “That makes all of our efforts worth it.”

Learn more about mental health resources at Boston University by visiting Find out more about SAMHSA’s suicide prevention activities by visiting

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