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Suicide Prevention Grant Targets Groups at Risk

Trains students to be alert for warning signs


Dori Hutchinson and Larry Kohn of BU’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation are hoping the suicide prevention grant wiil help peers recognize the difference between a student who is clinically depressed and one having a bad day. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

It’s called the Boston University Suicide Prevention Program, but the campus health providers who will share in the new federal grant prefer to describe it as an initiative to promote mental health.

It’s not just a matter of semantics. As anyone involved in treating college students in crisis knows, a disproportionate number suffer from depression. And untreated major depression is the leading cause of suicide.

“We were becoming aware through our services experience and our research just how distressed college students are,” says Dori Hutchinson, a Sargent College adjunct assistant professor and director of services at BU’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. When Hutchinson applied for the $300,000 Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Program grant, which BU will match in full, she envisioned a program that would spread awareness of depression and suicide on campus to the point where no student would have to suffer in silence and the stigma of getting help would be shed once and for all.

“We’re only getting to a small percentage of students at risk because the ones in the most trouble don’t often seek help,” says Hutchinson.

Treating depression is the best hedge against suicide, the second leading cause of death among college students in the United States. Hutchinson cites national data indicating that about 44 percent of college students report having felt, at least once, so depressed it was difficult to function. Of these students, nearly 10 percent attempted suicide and 1 percent succeeded in ending their lives.

By offering education and promotional campaigns and opening up communication among mental health services, substance abuse services, faculty, staff, students, and families, the suicide prevention program hopes to target student groups believed to be at higher risk, but often ignored. These include international students, athletes, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender students, and students in sororities and fraternities. On the face of it, this last group may not appear particularly stressed, but Greek life often carries the risk of alcohol abuse under magnified peer pressure, and in general more pressure to conform. “It’s part of their culture,” says Hutchinson.

The grant grew out of federal legislation named for Garrett Lee Smith, the son of Gordon Smith, a former U.S. senator from Oregon. Garrett killed himself a day before his 22nd birthday, leaving a farewell note on his laptop screen and a phone-greeting saying, “Don’t call again.” Diagnosed with bipolar disease in the last months of his life, he had grown apathetic and gradually shut himself off from friends. Like Garrett, depressed students sometimes withdraw from friends and roommates and let their studies and their personal appearance deteriorate. For some, their pleas for help are in a code peers are unable to decipher. Hutchinson and colleague Larry Kohn, the center’s director of development, hope the grant will change that. Hutchinson has worked with Kohn in BU-based psychiatric rehabilitation for 25 years and refers to him as her “office spouse.”

“The initiatives are exciting and innovative and will greatly expand the safety net of mental health services available to the entire student community,” says Margaret Ross, a psychiatrist and director of behavioral medicine at Student Health Services.

With the coordinated efforts of their office, behavioral medicine, and substance abuse counselors, care providers will use part of the grant to train students how to recognize the difference between someone who is possibly clinically depressed and someone who is having a bad day. The students won’t be diagnosing their peers. They will be trained to be more alert and receptive to those in crisis and to follow through by referring troubled students to those qualified to help. Students receiving the training will in turn train others, until, it’s hoped, awareness of suicide risk is widespread. One good reason to believe the program yields dramatic results is the success of former grant recipient Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The BU group is using WPT’s program as a model, making adjustments for BU’s larger, more diverse population.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, nearly all U.S. campuses created crisis plans. BU’s Peter Fiedler (COM’77), vice president for administrative services, was instrumental in the University’s move for mental health action on campus, of which the grant is an important component. “We were one of 22 universities in the United States to get funding,” says Hutchinson.

Why are so many students so troubled? “People talk about helicopter parents,” says Hutchinson. “A lot of these kids have never been on their own and have no resiliency skills.” Students in the grant’s target groups face added pressures. “We want to help students help their friends by being better supporters, good listeners, and good referrers,” she says, adding that the program will begin by training student leaders nominated by their peers. The hope is that the network will bloom and spread, with the trained becoming trainers, and volunteers continuously stepping up as part of what Hutchinson and colleagues have dubbed BURN (Boston University Resource Network). “We’ll have T-shirts that say, “Have You Been BURNed?” she says.

Another mandate of the grant is to educate parents, according to Hutchinson. Students in distress usually call their parents, and the parents often call the dean of students asking what they should do. The grant will enable BU providers to communicate through the electronic newsletters e-parent and Student Health 101. “We, the dean, and Dr. Ross get calls from parents saying their kid hasn’t come out of his room for a week,” she says. “They worry their kid will somehow fall through the cracks.” For graduate students the isolation can be much worse, since they’re off campus and not connected to a group.

“We wrote this grant because we recognize that it isn’t reasonable for Student Health Services or our center to find and fix all these students,” she says, “but rather, that outreach and support for at-risk students is everyone’s responsibility within a campus community.”

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


4 Comments on Suicide Prevention Grant Targets Groups at Risk

  • Anonymous on 01.26.2010 at 10:03 am

    I think this is a great idea, but the administration’s first step should be to hire more mental health care providers. It’s really difficult to schedule appointments once a week when there are so few psychologists and psychiatrists for such a large student population.

  • Bill Rohde, Master's in Health Communication Program on 01.27.2010 at 2:08 am

    The Culture of Denial

    As we have seen from the suicide epidemic that continues to claim lives in the US Army, both at the level of deployment and after disharge, the reality that vibrantly healthy young people take their own lives can have a stultifying effect on the entire institution. Younger people are not only more aware of life-shaping events but they lack the reassurance that comes from having weathered many storms that might seem horrific at the time, but that will all eventually resolve, with a much better than might have been anticipated outcome. Weneed to help ourselves and our peers to stick around until the miracle happens, and not get lost in the storm on the way to the banquet.

    Patience is rarely a virtue of the intellectually curious or the athletic competitors who represent the population at risk here at BU.

    Hopefully, there will be active participation of all stakeholders in every phase of planning and implimentation. Suicide is never a solution. It is the product of learned helplessness and denial. Let’s use this grant to open up the discussion that empowers all of us to seek and to develop supportive skills as part of our academic experience. Crisis is transformation waiting to happen.

  • Anonymous on 01.27.2010 at 10:50 am

    re: Sororities and Fraternaties unhealthy

    “… student groups believed to be at higher risk, but often ignored. These include international students, athletes, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender students, and students in sororities and fraternities. On the face of it, this last group may not appear particularly stressed, but Greek life often carries the risk of alcohol abuse under magnified peer pressure, and in general more pressure to conform. ”
    Athletes, fraternaties and sororoties have long been anecdotally connected to the abuse of international students and GLBT students. This article now connects them to abuse of their own members. it is an interesting warning.<: /p>

  • Anonymous on 02.27.2010 at 10:08 pm

    Suicide is never an option? What pamphlet did you glean that from? Suicide is when your pain exceeds your ability to cope with it.

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