Elizabeth Williams – social work student and suicide prevention activist

Photo of Elizabeth Williams at an Active Minds event.

Elizabeth Williams is a community activist as well as an inspiration to students pursuing careers in social welfare. Since her freshman year, Williams has been involved in UAA’s chapter of the Active Minds club, a national advocacy group for mental health support and awareness. Williams teaches suicide intervention training and promotes awareness and resource accessibility in other areas like sexual violence prevention and child welfare activism for Alaskans.

“Before I first started college I had a close family experience with suicide, but it had not been something that I was able to talk about because I felt like I didn’t have the skills to talk about it,” said Williams. “I felt a lot of fear and anxiety about the subject… I went to the QPR Gatekeeper suicide prevention training and I was just blown away by how the training made me feel like I could talk about suicide. That was such a new perspective for me. We all have a role to play in suicide prevention, which was such an empowering realization.”

The feeling of hopelessness that Williams described is a very common sentiment felt by people who have been affected by suicide and mental health problems. The main way to combat those feelings is to get educated and find ways to get involved. For Williams, joining UAA’s Active Minds club during her freshman year was the perfect opportunity to do both those things.

“They [Active Minds] are trying to fight the stigma surrounding mental health and college students because about one in three students experience mental health problems, and about two out of three students do not seek the help that they need. We also know that suicide is really prevalent among college students,” said Williams.

In Alaska, the 14 to 24 year old age group has the highest rates of suicide — higher than the national average.

“I really took on suicide prevention as my project, and I’ve made it a main focus of Active Minds here at UAA.”

Williams added that Active Minds spreads awareness about many types of mental health concerns; next week is Stress Less week, where they will be doing yoga and provide a movie screening of Wall-E among other activities.

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“After I took the prevention training class, I became a trainer; I started offering trainings once a month at UAA. I’ve also done trainings upon request for a couple different departments.”

Williams has trained athletics teams, clubs, the RAs, UAS, APU, Juneau students and open trainings the second Friday on every month. Williams does these trainings for free and on her own time.

“Those trainings weren’t going to be offered anymore, so I decided to keep offering them my own, and Lizzy Donavan from the SHCC offered to help me.”

Williams is not only a motivated and effective activist, but also a compassionate and open-minded teacher. Kyle Poissonnier, a social awareness activist from Maine who took a suicide prevention training class from Williams, spoke about what it was like taking a class from Williams.

“She did a good job of being approachable… a conversationalist, open, and easy to listen to,” said Poissonnier. “There were times during the class that people touched on some heavy things, and she was very sympathetic to stories that they were telling… Even now if I had a question or needed advice I would go back to her. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to anyone else, because she was the one who taught me that information first.”

Poissonnier said the class was taught effectively as well as compassionately.

“Since that time, I’d have people reach out to me. I was able to figure out the best way to help and assist people in crisis.That’s the stamp of a good class; being able to use the information learned in it to talk to and help others.”

Williams has heard lots of positive feedback from her teaching experiences.

“One thing that has been so cool to hear over and over again, is how people come away from this training feeling empowered,” she said. Williams said she had received emails from a woman who was finally able to talk to her daughter, who had been making suicidal comments for years, and the issue and try to find a solution.

Along with her work in suicide prevention, Williams also works to prevent child abuse and neglect by volunteering at a summer camp for children in foster care. Williams also volunteers at STAR as a call advocate, where she attends the sexual assault exam process to provide support for victims, as well as answering calls for their crisis line. Whether it’s child welfare, or sexual violence prevention, Williams has been able to get involved in social issues that are intense, emotional, and often very painful.

“Volunteering is one of the most important thing a college student can do.” Williams said that volunteering helped her become more aware of the world and gain experience. “…My advice is, start small. You don’t have to immediately jump into a huge commitment… You know what does change the world? Actually getting out there and volunteering and doing something about it.”

Williams’s passion for working the community foreshadows an exciting social welfare career in her future.

The next open suicide prevention training class will be held December 11 from 1-3pm in the Lyla Richards conference room in the Student Union.

To get involved with UAA Active Minds, check out their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/UAAActiveMinds/

To learn more about Kyle Poissonnier’s Be the Katalyst awareness work, check out http://bethekatalyst.com

Williams at an Active Minds event

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