UAA campus unites for suicide prevention effort

A study conducted by the Center of Behavioral Health Research (CBHR) in the spring of 2011 concluded 15.3 percent of UAA students have seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives. An additional 5.5 percent of students have seriously considered it in the last year.

The Integrated Suicide Prevention Initiative (ISPI) was created to ensure this 20.8 percent never carry out their idea.

“We’re talking about making sure we can hook students up with the resources if they have active ideation, but I’d say we’re focused actually before that point,” explained Dr. Bridget Hanson, a Research Assistant Professor at CBHR and the Project Director of ISPI.

After receiving funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Office of the Provost in 2011, Hanson and Becky Porter, ISPI’s Project Manger, quickly hit the road running.

On February 8th, ISPI, along with the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence (CAFE), held a Gatekeeper Training Workshop for all UAA faculty who wished to participate. Several faculty members attended the three-day event, intimating interest about being able to connect with their students on a more sensitive level.

“People know that [suicide] is a problem across the country and it’s certainly a problem [in Alaska] and on campus, so faculty are asking ‘What can we do?’” Hanson explained.

Libby Roderick, the Associate Director of CAFE, also participated in the training. The experience was relieving and helpful to her and other faculty members who may face difficulties connecting with students on a personal level.

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“It gave everyone a chance to ask some questions that they haven’t had a chance to ask and get effective responses from people who really know their business in this area,” Roderick said.

She explained that it is difficult for professors to realize which are signs of serious depression and which are signs of a normal overworked college student. The training also focused on giving professors methods of reacting if they identify a student that may be at risk.

“It equipped faculty to feel more confident about genuinely responding,” stated Roderick.

ISPI will be hosting other training sessions targeted for students and staff later in the semester.

While suicide prevention can be a loose term, used to describe different approaches, ISPI focuses upon personal interaction: ensuring warning signs are recognized and an appropriate response is given.

“It’s very complex. It’s different for every individual and there’s not one solid answer saying, ‘Here’s how we prevent suicide.’ But we do know that seeking help certainly reduces risk,” explained Hanson.

Seeking help can be one of the biggest obstacles for people at risk of suicide, however.

Porter explained about a damaging stigma surrounding counseling and other methods of treatment among individuals having suicidal ideation.

“I think some people just really want to make it seem like they’re doing fine and life is good. For some people it’s just hard to be vulnerable and to admit that that might be going on for them,” she stated.

Through close relationships with resource centers on campus, ISPI has been able to join events such as the National Depression Screening Day and National Suicide Prevention Week.

“What we’re trying to do is increase awareness of resources, not only for folks who need them directly, but for the people that are surrounding them,” Hanson said.

ISPI also has an Advisory Council, constituting a variety of invested parties who guide the work of the program. Organizations such as the University Police, Student Representatives, and Student Health Services, among others, all have members to voice their concerns and experience.

One such campus group on the council excited about ISPI is Resident Life. Dr. Lacy Karpilo, the Director of ResLife, has already been including suicide prevention training for staff in her program for over a year now.

ResLife staff are required to undergo the training at least once a year and become nationally certified in suicide prevention. But Karpilo believes ISPI can offer something new to suicide prevention efforts at UAA: comprehensive cooperation.

“The one thing I really appreciate about this initiative is that it’s campus-wide,” she stated. “Getting everyone at the table is great.”

ISPI’s funding is limited and set to run out by August of 2014. The realization that their program will not be around indefinitely have pushed Hanson and Porter to establish a “foundation” that will remain long after the program dissipates.

“The overall goal is to make this a sustainable effort so that when these funds are done, the campus will have a better way to help prevent suicide among UAA students,” Porter said.

The effort to understand and counteract suicidal ideation is something other campus organizations will have to pick up and carry on, come the expiration of ISPI funding.

But for now, the program will build and teach, hoping the 20.8% and others experiencing similar difficulties, can be reached before it’s too late.

Gatekeeper Training will occur for students on March 21 and 23 in Gorsuch Commons. Registration is available at uaa.alaska.edu/ispi