UMass Mental Health Services receives grant to aid in suicide prevention among students

By Alyssa Creamer

uhs-JoshKelloggShe paces – lights another cigarette. It is clear to this reporter that this is not an easy matter to discuss.

The University of Massachusetts sophomore wishes to remain anonymous during the telling of her story – a personal narrative of struggle, depression and suicide ideation. Her story deals with some of the elements students can experience when faced with the reality of a close relation’s death.

In 2007, her first boyfriend was killed in a car accident on a night when the two were supposed to be meeting. Before seeking support from friends, family and mental health professionals, this student wrote off the idea of a support system, opting to care for her own needs because she said she thought she would be seen as “weak” if she pursued outsiders’ help.

Chain-smoking, a habit she had developed as a coping mechanism, was a habit she said she “still needed to get through the interview.”

She said, “I didn’t like the idea of talking about what had happened because I was so depressed that I thought people would think the thoughts I was having made me crazy or abnormal.”

“When he died,” she said. “It was really hard for me to deal with accepting what had happened. I thought that I couldn’t be close to other people because then something bad would happen to them too.”

During the interview, she acknowledged that she had isolated herself from those who tried to form a support group around her.

“I felt so alone, but it was my choice to be alone,” she said. “Because I thought it would help to handle this on my own, and that I was right in thinking the guilty feelings I was having should not be burdened on others.”

Months after her friend’s death, this student attempted to take her own life.

The student said that “had [she] sought out help or if someone had just done something to acknowledge [she] was not okay, [she] would not have tried to kill herself.”

This year, UMass’ University Mental Health Services division received a $300,000 grant towards suicide prevention that will help raise awareness about the serious mental and behavioral health issues facing college students just like this sophomore.

According to a release in 2006, when MHS received a $225,000 suicide prevention grant, they used it to follow what UHS officials have called a “gatekeeper model,” developed by Syracuse University.

MHS intends to use this year’s grant to continue following this model by further developing the ways in which those who frequently communicate with the student body can recognize at-risk students and get them help.

MHS’s plans for the grant involve training campus staff, coaches, administration and students to become first responders – people able to see the signs of mental and behavioral health issues in students and get those students the professional support they need.

In a release sent by UHS Communications and Marketing representative Karen Dunbar Scully, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Acting Administrator Eric Broderick said, “Nearly a quarter of a million students in colleges and  universities each year attempt suicide.”

Additionally, according to a release sent out in Nov. 2006 by UHS officials, “UMass Amherst surveys have shown that over 80 percent of [students] who sought mental health care said services helped them stay in school and improve academic performance.”

“I wish I had talked to someone without an emotional connection to me,” said the sophomore interviewed.

She continued by adding that “on top of everything that students have to deal with from family problems to academic issues and all the stresses that go with having a life, traumatic life-changing events can really put a person at dangerous low points. While it is normal to feel sad at times, it can be hard to recognize when those sad points have gone too far. Training people as first-responders can make all the difference because it can prevent someone else from feeling alone enough to hurt themselves.”

While UHS and MHS officials could not be reached for comment, Kerry Morrison, a licensed psychologist working at mental health services and the coordinator of the suicide prevention program, hosted a series of workshops in September training resident life staff on methods to help students who are struggling with mental health issues. Training included role-playing, group discussions and distribution of facts and data on suicide rates among college students.

At the end of her workshop on Sept. 21, Morrison had stressed that she hoped the workshop would help UMass housing resident directors and resident assistants be more aware of the signs of suicide ideation.

Alyssa Creamer can be reached at [email protected]