Dec 5, 2013
By Angela Woodward
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens and young adults, and in recent years campus counseling centers across the country have been reporting an increase in the number of students with severe and often lengthy histories of mental health concerns.
According to Dr. Krystal Hernandez, data from Ohio University's Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) suggests that four out of 10 students who visit during drop-in hours report experiencing suicidal thoughts. CPS has also observed a 15 percent increase in the number of students who took advantage of drop-in hours during the first three weeks of fall semester and a 4 percent increase for the first 12 weeks of this semester, when compared to fall 2012.
Jenny Hall-Jones, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, estimates that OHIO's Division of Student Affairs staff handles student issues related to suicide at least once a week.
"It's becoming more likely that on a daily basis one of us – be it a student, faculty or staff – will encounter somebody who is in distress, who is in need of support and who, oftentimes, is not aware of the resources available to them," Hernandez, a staff therapist at CPS, said.
That's why Hernandez, Hall-Jones and their offices have come together and formed the Ohio University Suicide Prevention Coalition. Its goals are to reduce the stigma of mental health counseling, to increase the utilization of mental health resources on campus and to provide OHIO's students, faculty and staff with the knowledge, skills and awareness needed to help those in distress.
The coalition's goals are founded on the strength of the Bobcat community and rooted in a desire to make a difference in the lives of OHIO students, faculty and staff and to give those individuals the tools and knowledge to make a difference in the lives of others.
It was an interest in human behavior and relationships and a desire to make a difference in people's lives that led Hernandez to a career in psychology and the strength-based approach she brings to the field.
"Within a counseling session, we talk about what a student wants to improve as well as what's going well and how we can harness those strengths," Hernandez explained, "so I believe in the importance of fostering strong, supportive relationships. My career path in psychology and counseling has allowed me to help make a difference for our college student population."
Hernandez has been part of the CPS staff since August 2012 and said she has been involved in several situations with students who have been experiencing suicidal thoughts or plans.
"I think one of the things I learned very early on is the importance of the Bobcat family," she said. "I've been extremely impressed by the way that we very naturally band together to provide support to a student – and not just the particular student in crisis – but also their fellow students and family members and other people who might be impacted by these situations."
Last spring, a few public outcries for help occurred on campus, prompting the formation of two student organizations dedicated to suicide prevention and solidifying the need for the Suicide Prevention Coalition. OHIO leaders began discussing forming the coalition in January 2013.
"We started saying we need to give people the language, the resources and the skills to support their friends, their family members, their faculty members," Hall-Jones said. "Everybody needs to have the knowledge, the skills and the ability to 'say the right thing.'"
The coalition was created this past spring. Spearheaded by the Division of Student Affairs and CPS, the group includes employees from departments throughout the Athens Campus, including Human Resources, the Ohio University Police Department, Campus Care, Residential Housing, Athletics, and Environmental Health and Safety. It also includes some students, including the president of Bobcats for Suicide Prevention, a group that Hernandez advises.
"We recognize that suicide is a very serious issue and that students are increasingly and easily in distress with the demands of school, the changing nature of society and the economy, as well as family factors and cultural factors," Hernandez said.
"Our No. 1 mission at Ohio University is student success, and you cannot be successful if you have these heavy thoughts and heavy issues weighing you down," Hall-Jones said. "We want to help you, so you can be successful."
Over the course of its meetings, the coalition decided to implement a gatekeeper training program to address issues of suicide in the OHIO community. Gatekeeper training involves educating a core group of individuals – in this case, individuals who reach students, faculty and staff on a regular basis – on how to recognize the warning signs for suicide and how to respond appropriately to those struggling with these issues and direct them to mental health resources.
"It's called a gatekeeper program because it's really about getting people to the resources they need," Hall-Jones explained. "The goal is to empower people to intervene when they see someone who is in distress."
The coalition explored several gatekeeper training programs before deciding to model OHIO's program on Syracuse University's Campus Connect program. Developed by Syracuse's Counseling Center, Campus Connect is nationally recognized within the collegiate community and is being used on more than 120 campuses nationwide, including several in Ohio.
Cory Wallack, director of Syracuse's Counseling Center, will be training a group of about 25 OHIO employees on the Campus Connect program on Dec. 11 in Baker University Center. Among those being trained are senior staff at CPS, as well as individuals from the Division of Student Affairs, Ohio University Police Department, Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion, and Residential Housing.
After these individuals complete the training, they will be tasked with sharing their training with colleagues and will become gatekeeper trainers themselves. The eventual goal is to provide the training to such groups as Residence Life staff and to allow groups of students, faculty and staff to request the training.
"We want to gradually reach as many people as we can on campus," Hernandez said. "I've met with students who have friends who are struggling with suicide, and they often ask, 'What can I do? I want to help.' I think a gatekeeper program like this will encourage individuals' sense of confidence and competence in helping others in distress to get the necessary mental health resources and professional help they deserve."
At a recent Suicide Prevention Coalition meeting, Dr. Fred Weiner, director of CPS, noted the opportunity this training will eventually provide for OHIO's faculty and staff.
"This training will allow our employees to truly make a difference on campus and in our students' lives," he said. "Gatekeeper training will provide them an opportunity to go above and beyond."
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Ohio University students in need of mental health services may visit or contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS).
Located on the third floor of the Hudson Health Center, CPS is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The office provides mental health and adjustment services to students and consultation to faculty, administrators and parents of students. CPS' services are designed to help students understand themselves and their difficulties and, ultimately, to make healthy choices for their lives.
Students who are experiencing a crisis or wish to initiate therapy at CPS for the first time should visit CPS during its Drop-in Hours, 9:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. This initial visit will allow the student and CPS staff to explore the student's counseling needs during a confidential meeting with a drop-in counselor. Follow-up services provided by CPS include individual counseling, group counseling and psychiatry. In addition, CPS makes referrals to a wide range of other services both on and off campus.
Students may also reach CPS through its 24/7 Crisis Intervention Service at 740-593-1616. This service is staffed by healthcare professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
'Let's Talk' hours
CPS also offers a Counselor-in-Residence program, which places professionally supervised mental health clinicians directly into OHIO residence halls to address the mental health concerns of residents and Residence Life staff.
Counselors-in-Residence are doctoral students in clinical psychology or counselor education programs who have a master's degree and have completed at least two years of supervised clinical training.
The Counselor-in-Residence program offers "Let's Talk" hours from 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Fridays in Jefferson Hall 122.
For OHIO employees
Ohio University provides assistance to its employees and their family members through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
The program includes confidential 24/7 live professional assistance available by calling 1-800-227-6007; unlimited provider referral assistance; professional face-to-face counseling; and unlimited telephone guidance, counseling, coaching and crisis intervention.
For more information, visit http://www.ohio.edu/hr/benefits/balance/index.cfm.
There are two student organizations on the Athens Campus dedicated to suicide prevention.
Post-It! is aimed at spreading suicide awareness, positive reminders and peer support as well as providing an anonymous outlet for people to share their experiences through Post-It Notes. Bethany Logan serves as the organization’s president while Melissa Wales serves as its adviser. For more information, e-mail Logan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bobcats for Suicide Prevention is a campaign aimed at raising awareness about the threats of suicide among OHIO students and the general population and at promoting healthy living among students. Claire Bens serves as the organization’s president while Dr. Krystal Hernandez is its adviser. For more information, e-mail Bens at email@example.com.