Rutgers Conference on Preventing Suicide on College Campuses Draws Big Audience and Big Ideas

Rutgers Conference on Preventing Suicide on College Campuses Draws Big Audience and Big Ideas

Study finds 6 percent of college students seriously consider suicide each year,1 percent attempt it

Colleges and universities could do more to prevent suicides among students – including making counseling services more visible and accessible, and creating prevention programs that engage the student population and instill a sense of belonging.

Those were just some of the initiatives discussed February 8 at a daylong suicide prevention conference hosted by Rutgers University at the Busch Campus Center.

The conference, “A Community Approach to Suicide Prevention in Higher Education," which examined the phenomenon of student suicide from the perspective of clinicians, lawyers, and student affairs specialists,drew more than 250 people, many of them mental health advocates and college professionals.

The purpose of the conference, said Gregory S. Blimling, Rutgers vice president for student affairs, was to" bring people together as a community to really begin to study the issue to see if there are things we can share among ourselves and do a better job about preventing suicide in New Jersey and in other states."

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Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, with roughly 1,100 students taking their own life every year, about 7 in every 1,000.  In addition, 6.3 percent of students seriously considered suicide in the past year and 1.3 percent attempted it, according to a 2008 health assessment survey by the National College Health Association. The survey also found that the rate of students diagnosed with depression has increased  – from 10% in 2000 to 16% in 2005.

But colleges and universities vary widely in their approach to student mental health, making it difficult to develop an ideal model, said Alan Siegel, who oversees mental health services for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of two keynote speakers.

“Every college has its own sense of what works in its specific community,” Siegel said.  “Consequently it seems to me very difficult to expect we can come up with a model that works well for the majority of institutions, especially when it comes to thinking about suicide on campus.”

Siegel came to MIT after the death of student Elizabeth Shin prompted a wrongful death lawsuit and raised questions about the school’s handling of mental health services for students. Siegel instituted numerous changes, including moving to a team-based concept of care, improving access to services and making sure help is available 24 hours a day.

"The single most important thing you can do, he said, is to make it very easy for faculty students and staff to engage consultation and care, by developing the most natural and least intimidating entry point," he said.

Indeed, a recurring theme during the conference was the need for campus counseling centers to move beyond their day-to-day therapeutic work and develop ways to reach out to the general student population. A panelist from Stony Brook University, for example, said her staff of clinicians was on the right track when they donned the school''s signature red hot shirts and introduced themselves to students at a university social event.

 "Here are some of our clinicians serving ice cream to students and proving they are relatively normal people," said Jenny Hwang, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services and the Center for Prevention and Outreach at Stony Brook,  showing a campus slide show to the audience.

A speaker from Cornell University, meanwhile, touted the school's Let's Talk initiative, an informal, drop-in counseling program that has various campus locations. "It's informal, it's friendly, and there is no 50-minute sessions or filling out paperwork," said Greg Eells, associate director of Gannett Health Services and director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell.

But it's not just mental health providers who can play a role in reducing instances of student suicide. The director of resident life at the University of Delaware outlined a system in which residential advisors and hall directors help build community so they know when someone may be having trouble

"What's most important is the relationship-building piece, said Kathleen Herr. "If you know your residents, and you know what they are like on a typical day, you are going to know what they are like when things are going awry," she said.”

The conference featured three panels focused respectively on community awareness, risk management, and strategies for community based involvement. The conference's one student speaker was Sean Campbell, a 20-year-old Hunter College student, who talked about his own struggles with depression and the need to combat stigma.

"If we have a true understanding of what mental illness is, based on facts not stereotypes, than we can accept ourselves for who we are and realize we are not crazy or insane but in fact we have a problem we need to treat, " Campbell said.

Presenting the keynote closing address was Ronald Chen, the former public advocate of New Jersey and the former dean for academic affairs at Rutgers School of Law–Newark. He has recently rejoined the law school as a vice dean. Chen noted that moreschools are using the process of involuntary removal for students who are considered a high risk for harming themselves or others. But he said schools taking those measures can easily wind up in legal jeopardy.

"Although the impulse to get these students off campus is understandable, policies requiring in a broad-based way or blanket way the removal of those students, without an appropriate process for assessing their actual dangerousness run the risk of violating state and federal law, Chen said."