Courtesy UNK/Publication Design
Suicide Prevention on Campus: Keeping Students Connected
University of Nebraska at Kearney Promotes Mental Health
By Kristin Blank
Entering college can be a stressful time for any young adult. “College can be such an adjustment—leaving your family, feeling homesick, and adjusting to life as an adult,” said Kristin A. Steinbeck, M.A., LPC, Suicide Prevention Director at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) Counseling and Health Care Center.
For someone struggling with depression or a substance abuse problem, reaching out to find help may be even harder than for a typical overwhelmed college student.
Until they need it, few students know where the counseling center is on campus—or even if one exists. Ask Ms. Steinbeck. She spent 4 years as an undergraduate at UNK, but it wasn’t until late into her graduate studies that she found out about the university’s mental health services.
Now, part of Ms. Steinbeck’s daily work is to make sure students, professors, and administrators know that free and confidential counseling services are available—and, especially, that it’s okay to get help. She also works one on one with students as a counselor.
In 2006, SAMHSA awarded UNK a Campus Suicide Prevention grant through the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act (see SAMHSA’s Campus Suicide Prevention Grant Program). Currently, SAMHSA grants fund 49 colleges and universities around the Nation. Many other schools have already “graduated” from the program.
The Agency plans to fund 21 new grants in 2009, according to Rosalyn Blogier, LCSW-C, SAMHSA’s Team Coordinator for the program. Ms. Blogier is a public health advisor in the Agency’s Suicide Prevention Branch at the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS).
“Since the program began in 2005, we’ve really gained momentum and built a network of schools that can spread the word that help is out there—and where to find it,” she said. “Some of our grantees partner with their state and local suicide prevention programs. Others, like Syracuse University, share what they’ve learned over the course of their grant with newer grantees.” (See Gatekeeper Training: Syracuse University.)
Preliminary data gathered by Ms. Steinbeck and her team indicate that their efforts to raise awareness among UNK students are succeeding. In fall 2006, when the university first received the grant, only 698 sessions were held at the Counseling Care Center. Two years later, in fall 2008, that number jumped to 1,180.
“I think the need was always there. What’s different is students know about us and trust that we’re here to help,” Ms. Steinbeck said. “Word of mouth, especially on the Internet, is our best outreach.”
Incorporating ever-growing social media networks to spread the word about their activities and services is part of UNK’s outreach program. Active Minds is a student-run organization that promotes help-seeking behaviors and sponsors activities that encourage people to talk positively and openly about mental health challenges and suicide prevention. Approximately 200 campuses in the United States operate a chapter.
“The group’s main focus is to eliminate stigma associated with getting help,” Ms. Steinbeck explained. The UNK chapter, which formed early in the 2007-2008 academic year, recently was deemed a five-star chapter by the national office because of its robust programming. That is the highest ranking a chapter can achieve.
The UNK Active Minds chapter includes 4 executive members who meet weekly and 10 to 12 members who meet every other week. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Ms. Steinbeck said.
More than 50 Active Minds members at UNK use Facebook to stay connected. “We have a lot of people who can’t make it to our meetings but find other ways to be involved,” she said.
Student members will post an announcement on Facebook or the university’s “blackboard” system and ask people to share information with their classmates. “Responses from professors, administrators, and students are positive and encouraging,” Ms. Steinbeck said. “People are concerned about mental health.”
Ms. Steinbeck stressed that asking students to share information with their peers does more than promote an event or the group—it shows students that it’s okay to talk about mental health problems. “A kid can stand up in front of a class of 30, 40, or even 100 and get the word out that services are available and that it’s okay to use them,” she said.