Residence Life staff receive training in suicide prevention

By Alyssa Creamer

suicideThe week of Sept. 21, presents some grim but informative training on suicide prevention for resident assistants at the University of Massachusetts.

UMass’ mental health services received a college suicide prevention grant in 2006 to last until 2009. The grant has been used to create workshops to train faculty at UMass about the various ways in which suicide can be prevented.

Because of the close proximity resident life staff has from living in close quarters to the student body on-campus, resident assistants [RAs] and resident directors are considered by mental health services to be “first responders” to suicide cases. As such, the University requires the suicide prevention training mandatory for its resident life staff.

Kerry Morrison, a licensed psychologist working at mental health services and the coordinator of the suicide prevention program, oversaw the workshop in room 917 of the Campus Center Monday night and will be continuing to do so for the rest of the week.

She began her seminar by explaining that suicide among teenagers can be prevented if proper measures to are taken to help those at risk.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” said Morrison. “Suicide is not a choice. It happens when the pain a person is experiencing exceeds that person’s resources to cope with that pain.”

Morrison stressed the importance of suicide prevention training by listing off statistics to RAs about the gravity and commonality of the issue.

According to a report in 2004 with data taken from the 2000 census and information collected by the American Association of suicidology, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. It is the second leading cause of death in college students and is second to motor vehicle accidents.

The following statistics, due to the necessity of gaining statistics from and ten-year census, may be slightly outdated. Morrison represented the thoughts of mental health services stating that “the numbers are actually probably higher.”

That data she presented said that every year about 5,000 young adults complete suicide. That figure excludes the number of students who attempt suicide but are unable for various reasons to end their lives. That is to say 14 young adults every day complete suicide; that is one young adult every hour and half. Of these 5,000 yearly suicides, some 1,100 are college students.

According to Morrison, a national survey reported that 10 percent of young adults identify that they have had suicide ideation or thoughts of suicide.

“I thought the statistics were very eye-opening. Just hearing that it was the second leading cause of death in college students was very unnerving,” said junior hospitality and tourism management major and resident assistant Nick Ciardi.

A sheet of paper outlining guidelines for how to seek or get others help was handed out to a group of this year’s new RAs. It explained in that in emergency situation it is important to call 9-1-1 or find immediate help from a mental health provider when one hears or sees someone exhibiting the common signs of suicide.

For example, if someone is threatening to hurt or kill his or herself, Morrison stressed that is a situation in which that person should be referred to mental health services.

As Morrison put it, “there are red flags” that should go up in an RAs mind when they discover that someone might be hurting themselves through cutting or attempting to hurt themselves by trying to find access to pills or weapons that could potentially end his life.

Other behaviors RAs were told to watch out for as signs of suicidal thoughts are residents who display feelings of hopelessness, rage, anger, vengeance, recklessness, excessive risk-taking, being trapped, anxiety, agitation or purposelessness. Additionally, the suicide prevention training also explained to those in training that if a student does any of the following – increases alcohol or drug use, withdraws from friends, family or society, suffers from insomnia or can be found sleeping all the time, has dramatic changes in his or her mood or proclaims he or she has no reason for living – these are all messages that that person is in need of help.

There was a consensus of fear between many RAs that someone who might be contemplating suicide might only be sending out messages that are too cryptic for them to notice in time to refer that person to right resources.

Morrison attempted to quell common myths about suicide such as that “people who talk about suicide won’t really do it,” citing that research that she finds reliable has shown that “almost everyone who attempts suicide has given some clue or warning.” Also, the program claimed that in studies done about suicide victims, over half of them sought professional help within six months of their suicide. This proves the idea that those with suicidal thoughts do not have any interest in seeing a therapist invalid.

Another myth that Morrison’s handouts debased was “if a person is going to attempt suicide, nothing is going to stop them.” Morrison explained that most individuals who attempt suicide “remain uncertain of their decision until the final moment. Most suicidal people do not wish for death; they wish for the pain to stop.”

Some of the people attending this suicide prevention program believed there was an element of truth to the statement that

“Talking about suicide may give someone the idea.” However, the lecture insisted that a person does not give a person suicidal thoughts by talking about suicide. Instead, it suggests that “bringing up the subject and discussing it is one of the most helpful things [a person] can do, as it helps a suicidal person feel understood and demonstrates that [someone] understands the amount of suffering the person is experiencing.

“RAs are not therapists,” said Morrison told the RAs. “Don’t bear the burden of knowing someone needs help alone. Share with your fellow RAs and staff.”

She also explained that it is important to encourage students showing signs of suicidal thoughts to talk with others such as friends, peers, and family members.

Morrison did stress that while RAs are not therapists and need to take care of their own mental health, that just by exhibiting human compassion and taking the time to show concern for others could help prevent someone from committing suicide.

“If a person feels like they can talk to you about suicide, they probably feel like they can talk to you about anything” said Morrison.

She also discussed what to do if it seems as though a person is attempting to conceal his pain or thoughts of suicide.

“Trust your gut,” said Morrison. “After 25 years of school and training, it is really my gut that leads me. People can say all the right things to try to get you to believe that nothing is wrong, but if your gut is telling you something’s up, follow it. Just sincerely asking [that person] ‘what is really going on?’ usually works.”

Morrison told a story about one of the 14 individuals who attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and plummeting into the San Francisco Bay. His story exemplifies the importance of human connections and not ignoring signs of pain in someone else.

“The man said that as soon as he jumped, he regretted it,” said Morrison. “A German woman asked him to take his picture, while he stood there looking extremely scared and upset. He took her picture and jumped over the edge. He said that if she had just acknowledged that something was wrong with him, he probably would not have jumped.”

“I thought the training was extremely interesting,” said junior anthropology major and resident assistant Carrie Swain. “It was helpful to go over suicide prevention methods again because we did receive some briefing during our summer training.”

The lecture ended with a role-playing session in which the RAs were encouraged to shout out advice to Morrison as she pretended to be a fictional sophomore student who blamed herself for her sisters’ death and was contemplating suicide.

“I did not find it that difficult to talk about suicide prevention,” said sophomore psychology and neuroscience major and resident assistant Mary Donhoffner. “I liked the role-playing at the end because it felt very realistic. It is good to have experience with conversations about suicide before we are exposed to it as RAs.”

Alyssa Creamer can be reached at [email protected]