APPLETON, WIS. — In the war against suicide, college and universities often find themselves on the front lines.
Among people aged 18-22 in the United States, suicide is the third-leading cause of death. In Wisconsin, suicide is the number two cause of death among young adults, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all deaths among 18-22-year olds, the eighth-highest rate in the nation.
To help combat those alarming statistics, Lawrence University has been awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to implement a comprehensive approach to preventing suicide.
Lawrence received one of 22 SAMHSA grants totaling $6.3 million that were awarded nationwide. The SAMHSA suicide prevention grants have been funded by Congress since 2005 in recognition of increasing levels of distress among the nation’s college-age population.
Under the direction of Kathleen Fuchs, director of counseling services at Lawrence and adjunct associate professor of psychology, the college will launch the Lawrence University Campus Suicide Prevention Project, an initiative designed to lower suicide risk factors and enhance protective factors, including life skills and social networking, among Lawrence students.
“Our primary goal is to be sure students who need help get help,” said Fuchs. “One of the principal keys to that is lowering stigma about asking for help.”
Fuchs said the initiative will focus on developing and implementing culturally competent activities that effectively address the mental health needs of students, particularly those at high risk.
“We want to change the campus culture by reducing the stigma of talking about suicide as well as the risk factors ingrained in the academic and social culture on campus and to promote awareness and use of mental health services,” Fuchs said. “We want to coordinate our resources with community resources to ensure students receive comprehensive services.”
The National Institute of Mental Health says the strongest risk factors for attempted suicide among youth are depression, alcohol or other drug abuse or a history of traumatic events, such as sexual abuse. According to SAMHSA, nearly a quarter of a million students in colleges and universities attempt suicide each year.
“This national tragedy demands a strong pro-active approach — reaching out to all those at risk with information and services that give real help and hope,” said Eric Broderick, SAMHSA acting administrator.
Fuchs says the Lawrence University Campus Suicide Prevention Project has multiple objectives, including developing new and enhancing existing training programs to better recognize, respond to and refer distressed students, strengthen internal and external networking infrastructures. It also aims to develop appropriate educational outreach approaches that are tailored to the unique needs of the Lawrence campus, which is known for its intense academics and extreme involvement in extracurricular activities.
The SAMHSA grant will support comprehensive training for key gatekeepers among faculty, staff and athletic coaches to help them recognize and reach out to students in distress as well as help promote healthy habits and social connectedness.
“Feeling valued and positive about oneself helps lower depression and suicidal risks,” said Fuchs. “We have a very diverse student population and we want to be sure we’re addressing the needs of all students, particularly those from sub-populations that tend to be at higher risk. It’s important everyone feels they belong and they have strong social networks.”
The scope of the program will extend beyond “the Lawrence bubble” to incorporate key mental health stakeholders throughout the Fox Valley community in identifying common concerns and share suicide prevention efforts, particularly with other local college campuses.
“We are very fortunate to have excellent partners in this community, including our counterparts in various educational settings and a very active Fox Valley NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter,” said Fuchs. “We look forward to collaborating closely with these existing partners as well as potential new ones that are serving at-risk youth and young adults.”
Karen Aspenson, executive director of NAMI Fox Valley, said young adults represent one of the country’s most important future resources and even one suicide in the community is too many.
“We must devote our time and energy to helping people understand that they’ve done nothing wrong if they are experiencing symptoms of mental illness,” said Aspenson. “They are experiencing a biological disorder and seeking help for it should be as natural as going to the doctor for symptoms of the flu. We are proud of Lawrence for taking on this initiative and look forward to working with them in any way that we can.”