Maine school engages college community in spotting suicide signs

By Jennifer E Chase
March 1st, 2012

A spate of suicide prevention programs have cropped up on U.S. college and university campuses since the end of 2011, thanks to a nationwide grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Presented under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act of 2004 – so named in honor of Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) whose son committed suicide – $102,000 grants renewable for up to three years are making it possible for anyone to recognize and act on suicide warning signs they see in college students – one worried professor, staff member or friend at a time.

In New England, the University of Southern Maine (USM) is the newest institution of higher ed to join the pack with USM CARES, a three-pronged suicide prevention program that includes building a student support network through student training sessions; distress and suicide prevention training for faculty and staff; and a unique, anonymous Web-based depression screening that has been reaching students who might not have come forward to admit suicide was on their radar screen.

USM’s Clinical Director of Counseling Services, Robert Small, Psy.D., developed the program and wrote the letter that secured the grant for funding. To handle the program’s day-to-day execution, he hired Micheline Hagan, Psy.D., as the USM CARES coordinator.

“There is a fair amount of research that college students in distress are going to seek help from a peer before going anywhere else,” says Hagan. “This program is helping people understand that suicide prevention is all of our responsibility.”

According to Hagan, each of the program’s aspects has been helpful, but the anonymous Interactive Screening Program (ISP) is a frontrunner for being strongest. Targeting students who may be considered at high risk for depression (e.g., first-year commuters who might find it hard to connect with their fellow students), the questionnaire has already been emailed to 2,000 students with the offer that they may have their responses evaluated by a professional. Answered questionnaires are sent to USM’s Counseling Services center where staff psychologists will reach out to students deemed at risk of for depression or worse.

Since fall 2011 when the program launched, ISP responses have revealed 70 students who were registering with very high levels of stress and who were not in counseling.

“In the general population, for every death by suicide there are 10 attempts. In college [students], there are 100 attempts for every suicide,” says Hagan. “Some students fill it out and then they’re done. Some dialogue online [with psychologists]. Some come in for appointments.”

USM CARES was based on the many suicide prevention programs that have resulted from the SAMHSA grant. Regionally, it took aspects of the successful program at University of Maine at Orono, and, says Hagan, the program started by Charlie Morse, MA, LMHC, assistant dean of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Student Development and Counseling Center, which focused heavily on creating a student support network on campus. Like USM CARES, both programs were winners of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Grant. Hagan says grant recipients have fostered a collaborative “cohort group” where grantees are “constantly sharing information.”

Hagan will be among those who present the USM CARES model and its theoretical underpinnings, as well as the state of mental health issues in college, at the Co-Occurring Collaborative Serving Maine conference in Augusta, Maine in April. It’s USM’s presentation “Taking A Collaborative Approach for Suicide Prevention” that will pay forward the information USM is trying to impart on faculty and staff about what to look for in potentially troubled students and who admit that their overarching fear is saying the wrong thing to a student in need.

“I think if we look at the risk factors, we have a great means of intervention and [an ability to] help people,” says Hagan. “Most often, suicide is preventable; but it’s a community effort. We have to get really creative with how we reach people.”

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