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SAMHSA’s Award-Winning Newsletter
May/June 2009, Volume 17, Number 3 

photo of University of Nebraska at Kearney campus

Courtesy UNK/Publication Design

Suicide Prevention on Campus: Keeping Students Connected

University of Nebraska at Kearney Promotes Mental Health

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.”

Active Minds

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.

Changing Perspectives

Getting students to reach out to other students is a critical focus of UNK’s suicide prevention program, Ms. Steinbeck said. As part of the SAMHSA grant, the campus conducts a yearly survey that asks students, faculty, and staff about perception, such as if they would feel comfortable talking to someone about mental health issues and how they perceive the campus atmosphere.

“There’s a negative perception that people who have mental health issues are different and that they’re not okay,” Ms. Steinbeck said. She explained that in Midwest Nebraska, many people get by with the “do-it-yourself, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” mentality. “You hear them say, ‘Don’t ask for help, you can handle it.’ ”

That’s a driving force behind getting the participating students into classrooms. “We think it’s going to help reduce the stigma more than an adult talking to students,” Ms. Steinbeck said. “Peer-to-peer relationships are important. Otherwise, getting help for a mental health problem can be intimidating—nobody wants to be the odd man out.”

Holistic Approach

“Because of the SAMHSA grant, we’ve been able to pull everyone together, and now we have a more holistic approach,” Ms. Steinbeck said. “Counseling Care works directly with Health Care now, so we can treat physical and mental symptoms in one place.” Before the grant, mental health services and physical health care were separate departments.

Counseling Care also was able to hire a psychiatrist to come into the office once a month. The center also offers workshops and presentations on various mental health topics.

In addition, UNK’s staff received training from Syracuse University (SU), a former SAMHSA grantee, on the Campus Connect “gatekeeper” program that SU established under its own Campus Suicide Prevention grant. A gatekeeper is a person who comes into contact with students, recognizes warning signs of suicide or distress, and then can help link those students to a counselor.

“The Syracuse University program demonstrates how much creativity and progress in mental health promotion and suicide prevention can be achieved under the SAMHSA grant,” Ms. Blogier said. “Their work has informed and enriched the programs of other colleges and universities, and we’ve been able to reach more students because of it.”

Ms. Steinbeck and other staff members now train resident hall advisors (RAs) and students enrolled in nursing, sociology, and psychology classes to act as gatekeepers and help direct students who appear to be in crisis to the counseling center.

“Because we’ve been in classrooms and because we’ve conducted the trainings, RAs know who we are, so if a crisis happens in their buildings, they feel comfortable walking a student to the center,” Ms. Steinbeck said.

Coming Up

Next on the agenda is to post billboards throughout the university and in the town of Kearney, displaying SAMHSA’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) as well as the Counseling Care office number and location. “A lot of our students commute or live off campus, so that’s a better way to reach them,” Ms. Steinbeck said.

“The SAMHSA grant allows for flexibility in programming,” Ms. Blogier said. “Some suicide prevention programs need to reach more commuter students while others need to raise awareness in the dorms. Each school has different needs and different target populations.”

Things are definitely changing at UNK, Ms. Steinbeck said. “We now have a designated staff person to visit classrooms and get the word out about mental health services.”

Find out more about UNK’s Counseling Care services. Find out about SAMHSA’s other efforts to prevent suicide.

Awareness Walk

The University of Nebraska at Kearney’s (UNK’s) Active Minds members recently helped promote the campus Stomp Out Stigma Awareness Walk. The group set a pledge goal of 1,100 minutes of walking time. That represents the average number of 1,100 students nationally who die by suicide every year, said Kristin A. Steinbeck, Suicide Prevention Director at UNK’s Counseling and Health Care Center.

photo of three UNK students at the Stomp Out Stigma walk

Photo by Sarah Mulder

“We ended up getting 2,598 minutes pledged,” she reported. “The kids really pulled together.” Across a 2-hour span, about 65 people pledged from 20 to 60 minutes in support of suicide awareness.

The event received campus-wide exposure in the university newspaper, the Antelope.

SAMHSA’s Campus Suicide Prevention Grant Program

Just as one suicide affects hosts of people, suicide prevention needs to involve more than two people sitting behind a closed office door. That’s a guiding principle behind SAMHSA’s Campus Suicide Prevention Grant program, according to Rosalyn Blogier, LCSW-C, a public health advisor in the Suicide Prevention Branch in SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS).

The University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) is 1 of 49 SAMHSA-funded campuses around the Nation working to reach students in crisis. Ms. Blogier is the Project Officer for UNK and for more than 20 Campus Suicide Prevention program grantees. (See SAMHSA News online, November/December 2007, to read about grantees at Syracuse University and the University of California–Irvine.)

“This grant program assists colleges and universities in their efforts to prevent suicide attempts and completions,” said Richard McKeon, Ph.D., M.P.H., Public Health Advisor for Suicide Prevention at CMHS. “It also helps to enhance services for students with mental and behavioral health problems, such as depression and substance abuse, which put them at risk for suicide.”

The program funded the first cohort in 2005. Funds were made possible through the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act.

“We are trying to encourage greater partnership across campus organizations so that the college community understands that mental health promotion and suicide prevention are everyone’s responsibility,” said Ms. Blogier.

The grantees form an interlocking network across the country.

“Colleges and universities use SAMHSA funds to perform myriad activities that all aim to raise awareness among students, professors, and campus leadership to get help to those who need it,” said Maria Dinger, R.N., Suicide Prevention Branch Chief at CMHS.

Activities can include creating networks of student services to identify behavioral health problems, promoting stress reduction and help-seeking behaviors, and preparing materials that address warning signs of suicide and identify actions to take with students in crisis.

Find out more about SAMHSA’s Campus Suicide Prevention Grant program.

Previously in SAMHSA News

Suicide Prevention: New Media Increase Options

The Grahams: Commitment to Suicide Prevention, Mental Health

Substance Abuse & Suicide: White Paper Explores Connection

Preventing Suicide on College Campuses

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