Campuses will share strategies for suicide prevention

Many individual paths to concern about campus suicide will converge next month in a historic first: a suicide prevention conference for higher education in Washington state.

Lori Ann Miller’s tipping point came five years ago when two students died by suicide in the same academic quarter. Both were enrolled in Seattle Central College’s humanities and sciences programs, which Miller supports as a mental health counselor. Miller traveled the path to become a champion of suicide prevention by educating herself and bringing training and resources to her colleagues.

Farrah Greene-Palmer started her journey as a junior at Johns Hopkins University. In a literary writing class, she wondered why poets seemed to die by suicide more often than others. Today she is a clinical psychologist with a high-powered background in suicide prevention, leading a federally funded suicide prevention program at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Donn Marshall, associate dean of students and director of Counseling, Health & Wellness Services at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, calls himself an “accidental expert” in suicide prevention.

One suicide prevention effort led to others, which led to advanced training, which led to small grants to support the campus efforts. With a current enrollment of about 2,750, his campus has been suicide-free for 12 years, due in no small part to an approach called the MARSSH Protocol.

All three individuals will present at the Washington State Suicide Prevention in Higher Education Conference on Sept. 28-29. Forefront’s goal for the conference is to raise awareness of suicide prevention, and give administrators, counseling directors, student life officials, faculty and staff tools and strategies for addressing this issue on their campuses.

“This conference is a call to action, offering intense preparation about what campuses can do,” said Lauren Davis, Forefront Director of Campuses and Schools and lead organizer for the conference. “A lot of campus communities are unaware that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students.”

Davis also is project director for Husky Help & Hope (H3), a federally funded suicide prevention initiative at the University of Washington. Now in its second year, H3 takes a comprehensive approach, including training, behavioral health promotion, protocols for recognizing and responding to students at-risk, data gathering and analysis, and student engagement.

The conference is open to representatives of all two- and four-year colleges and universities in Washington state. The inaugural event will take place in Tacoma on the campus of the University of Puget Sound. Next June, Bellevue College will host the second annual conference. There is no charge for these events, which are made possible with funding from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) in partnership with the Washington State Department of Health.

LBGTQ Students and Veterans

At next month’s event, Miller will discuss suicide-prevention work with LBGTQ students and veterans at Seattle Central. This two-year institution enrolls about 16,000 students; Miller is one of eight mental health counselors on staff. “When school is in session,” she said, “I see at least one student a week who is talking about suicide, sometimes two.”

Miller is emphatic about what she does—and does not yet— know. More students approach her these days with serious mental health needs. A national survey showed that fewer than one in five students reporting suicidal thinking or attempts were receiving professional help. “I think lots of assumptions are made about counseling departments and counselors; ‘Oh, they can take care of it’,” Miller said. “But if research tells us that only 20 percent are coming in for help, we need an institution-wide response. Those who hear it first are the close friends, or those on social media. Or it comes out in their writing in class. Everybody needs to be involved.”

Miller is excited about the conference as a means of starting new conversations on suicide prevention. “I’m looking forward to meeting others around the state who are working with these same issues.”

Administrative buy-in; campus-wide approach

At the conference, Greene-Palmer will focus on gaining administrative support for a campus-wide coalition supporting suicide prevention.

Greene-Palmer did her graduate work at the University of Hawaii. She earned her doctorate as a clinical psychologist and then spent two years in Maryland at the federal Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. Her post-doctoral appointment placed her in a lab focused on suicidality among military service members and veterans.

Greene-Palmer has worked at Western for two years, creating suicide prevention training and outreach opportunities. She convened a group of student advisors who, among other things, decided on the program’s name: BRAVE, which stands for Building Resilience and Voicing Empathy. Training for faculty and staff, seminars in psychology classes, internships for psychology students, an evening of sharing dramatic versions of students’ mental health stories—Greene-Palmer has reached out in many ways to implement the school’s SAMSHA suicide prevention grant. Being new on campus added another level of effort.

“One of the biggest challenges is building trust. People are more willing to access resources, see speakers, or allow you in as a guest lecturer when they trust who you are and that you know what you’re talking about,” she said.

What is Working, What Isn’t?

Donn Marshall’s keynote address is titled, “What is Working and What isn’t? College Suicide Prevention, Locally and Nationally.”

One of the successful strategies on Marshall’s campus is the MARSSH Protocol—Mandated Assessment of Risk of Suicidality and Self-Harm—which connects students with help. When the university learns that a student is voicing suicidal thoughts or engaging in self-harming behavior, he or she is required to attend four sessions of psychological assessment.

“This is a program of student support, not a program of separation from the college,” Marshall said. The goal is to get students help when they need it. To date, the program is growing—and working. The five-year graduation rate for students who have been through the protocol very nearly equals Puget Sound’s overall graduation rate.

The conference will bring all this knowledge and more to be shared. It’s unclear in this first year how many will attend, but “based on the number of questions people have had about the conference,” Davis said, “there is significant interest.

– By Marny Lombard

For registration or other information, please contact Kathleen Gilligan at forefrontcollegeconference@gmail.com