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Campus Health to Expand Suicide Prevention Programming

UA's Campus Health Service has received a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to expand suicide prevention efforts.

If someone is feeling suicidal, one of the worst things to do is to say: "You aren't thinking of killing yourself, are you?" UA's Campus Health Service, with new federal funding, is working on best practices and also a more proactive and sustained approach to suicide prevention on campus with a more enhanced target on certain student populations. It could be a breakup, troubles with family, academic difficulties, financial strains or body-image issues. But, when sadness sets in, it can become an all-consuming force, sometimes leading to suicidal thoughts. But with new federal funding for suicide prevention initiatives, UA Campus Health Service is working to "train people to be lifesavers," said David Salafsky, director of UA's Health Promotion and Preventive Services.

Sometimes being able to intuitively pick up on a person's depressed mood, subtle or not, can require skill and practice. But even then, how do you come to ask, "Are you thinking about killing yourself?" 

"Talking about it really is the first step in trying to get someone help," said David Salafsky, director of University of Arizona's Health Promotion and Preventive Services, which is part of Campus Health Service.

Now, with a three-year, $306,000 grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, the UA division will be expanding its existing workshops and introducing new programs, all designed to prevent suicides among students. 

"It is about prevention and also intervention," Salafsky said. Both are necessary.

For instance, the division's 2011 health and wellness survey – a sample of more than 2,500 undergraduates at the UA – returned data that 6 percent of students indicated they had "serious thoughts" about suicide in the prior academic year.

"We're looking at the things that can be potential risk factors – mental health, alcohol, coping skills," Salafsky said, adding that the "feeling of loss" is one of the most important factors in leading a person to suicidal thoughts.   

"We see mental health as a growing need among the student population," he said.

On the grant, Campus Health is collaborating with UA partners including the College of Education, John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, Residence Life, Student Affairs, Counseling and Psychological Services and numerous other academic and non-academic centers and units. 

Also, Campus Health is matching the SAMHSA funds.

“Part of what we want to do with the grant is get everyone in the campus community more comfortable in reaching out when a student needs help,” Salafsky also said.

This is all part of a plan to devise a national model for suicide prevention on campus. 

Though the division will focus on the whole of the student body, it is placing a special emphasis on three student groups: American Indians, military veterans, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students.

"Based on our findings, we identify those students as having higher rates of suicides or instances of suicide," said Lee Ann Hamilton, UA's assistant director of Health Promotion and Preventive Services, who has spent the last two years leading workshops. 

And not all those who are clinically depressed are suicidal and not all those who have considered suicide are clinically depressed. 

With the funding, Campus Health will be able to introduce programs and also expand "QPR: Question, Persuade and Refer," which is a 90-minute interactive workshop designed for faculty, staff and students to be more active. 

"There is a very common misconception that bringing up suicide will put it into someone's head," Hamilton said.

"The truth is, when you ask somebody if they are thinking of killing themselves, it is often a release for that other person," Hamilton said. "Chances are, they have already thought about it and want to talk about it."

Also, the grant will allow Campus Health to train additional prevention specialists to offer workshops to others on campus. 

While QPR will be the hallmark program, other plans are in the works, all to help the campus community to be more actively involved in issues around suicide prevention. 

Campus Health and its institutional partners plan also to launch "The State of the Student Health" seminar, centering on trends in mental health.

Also in development are Webinars and plans to expand data collection around suicide on campus.  

Above all, what is especially important for Campus Health is in training individuals who are in positions of trust on campus and arming them with both information and strategies to help. 

That's why UA senior Karen Johnston got involved.

Johnston said she decided to participate in the QPR training during the spring of 2010, partially because she had friends who struggled with depression and had considered suicide.

"Even if you do not know someone who is having suicidal thoughts right now, it's very possible that you could encounter someone like that in the future," said Johnston, a UA Honors College student studying business management.

Johnston also said suicide prevention training is about developing stronger life experiences and in taking personal responsibility for being a resource and support to others.  

"It's important to step up as a friend and as a bystander," said Johnston, also a student worker for the UA OASIS Program.

"Students really need to look out for each other and build community. A lot of times student will go to their peers for advance and for help," she said. "It's better to take that initiative to care for a friend and others, to reach out and make sure everything is OK just in case it's not."

Story Contacts:

David B. Salafsky

UA Campus Health Service



Lee Ann Hamilton

UA Campus Health Service