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Mental Health

Dreaming Big

Envisioning a campus-wide suicide prevention strategy

Jonathan Morris, BA and Jennifer White, EdD

Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 23 & 27

In this article, we describe our experience mobilizing a campus-wide suicide prevention strategy at the University of Victoria. It began in 2004, when Jonathan started dreaming about students, staff, and faculty in his campus community coming together to promote mental health and prevent suicide. He wanted to see the vast knowledge and expertise on his campus harnessed to design a strategy that would put these concerns on the campus community’s agenda. More than anything, he wanted the conversation to start.

Jonathan’s story

My passion for campus suicide prevention was sparked by both personal and professional experiences during my undergrad years. I saw the debilitating impact of depression on several of my friends, who often felt stigmatized and isolated by their experience of mental illness. And, over the four years I worked as an advisor in a campus residence, I responded to several students in crisis, including one who attempted suicide.

These experiences play out on campuses throughout Canada. Studies found that 30% of undergraduate students reported experiencing psychological stress, and 11% reported having thoughts of suicide.1 Other research shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24 in British Columbia,2 with a rate of 7.5 out of 100,000 post-secondary students completing suicide.3

These troubling statistics, coupled with my experiences as a student, provided additional fuel for pursuing the dream of a campus-wide approach to suicide prevention. At the same time, I recognized I could not do it alone. One of the first people I approached to help was Dr. Jennifer White from the School of Child and Youth Care.

Jennifer’s story

I’ve been working in the field of youth suicide prevention for 20 years. I have always strongly believed in the importance of promoting a community-wide, comprehensive approach to this complex and multi-cause problem.

When I assumed a faculty position at the University of Victoria in 2004, I discovered, through conversations with Jonathan and others, that our campus didn’t have a broad-based suicide prevention strategy in place.
To me, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to apply values I cherished—community development, ownership and local participation—to the specific context of our university campus.

Jonathan’s enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for addressing this important issue created a wonderful opportunity for us to extend our conversation to include more campus representatives.

Covering all the bases—in an integrated way

Over the next few years, our dream continued to grow. By 2006, representatives from a broad cross-section of students’ services at UVic, as well as staff from the off-campus non-profit NEED Crisis and Information Line, had come to the table to discuss student mental health and suicide. Each representative carried expertise and ideas about how the campus community could address the problem. We decided to invite Camosun College to be part of the project, which opened the door for dialogue and learning between institutions. This process of recruiting local people to champion the cause marked the beginning of the Inter-Campus Suicide Prevention Action Group (ICSPAG).

A table was developed to allow us to map out gaps and areas of strength in the campus’s existing suicide prevention activities.4 Our table represents prevention efforts across a spectrum of action. These efforts include:

  • promoting well-being

  • educating community members to recognize signs someone might be suicidal

  • intervening with students identified to be at risk of suicide

  • supporting community members in the aftermath of a suicide completion

In keeping with a whole-community approach, these efforts take place in a variety of campus contexts and settings: among students, among staff and faculty members, at student services (e.g., counselling) and within the physical environment itself (e.g., restricting access to potentially lethal means).

We identified student involvement, suicide awareness education and finding out the frequency of suicidal behaviour on campus as priority areas for action. We’ve already achieved some success in these areas, specifically, in increasing student involvement. We decided to tackle this area first to ensure that our project was as relevant and well-targeted toward students as possible.

In February 2008, we held a student focus group to explore their ideas about mental health and suicide, their experiences supporting peers and their ideas for involving students in the initiative. Of note, students identified peer support resources as a critical element of a supportive campus community. We plan to explore this area as we develop our strategy.

The road ahead

The conversation about campus mental health and suicide prevention is becoming louder, but we are faced with challenges to keep the conversation going. ICSPAG has a vision and a research-informed framework for advancing its vision, but no funding to carry out its activities. We enjoy a lot of support from students and staff, but need to establish the full support of the campus administrations.

The road ahead may be rocky in places, but parts of the dream are coming true.

 

Promoting well-being

Education & detection

Interventions with students at risk of suicide

Supporting community after a suicide completion

Students

e.g., athletics programs

e.g., suicide awareness presentations

   

Faculty & staff

     

e.g., critical incident debriefing

Specialized student services

   

e.g., counselling

 

Campus environment

   

e.g., restricting access to potentially lethal means

 
 
About the author

Jennifer is an Assistant Professor in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria. She has worked in the mental health sector and in the field of suicide prevention since 1988.

Jonathan is a graduate student in Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria. He has been involved in youth suicide prevention for 10 years as a prevention educator and crisis line volunteer. Jonathan co-facilitates the Inter-Campus Suicide Prevention Action Group and is Dr. Jennifer White’s research assistant.

Footnotes:
  1. Adlaf, E.M., Demers, A., & Gliksman, L. (2005). Canadian campus survey 2004. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

  2. British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency. (2005). Selected vital statistics and health status indicators: Annual report. Victoria: Ministry of Health.

  3. Silverman, M., Meyer, P., Sloane, F. et al. (1997). The Big Ten Student Suicide Study: A 10-year study of suicides on Midwestern university campuses. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 27(3), 285-303.

  4. White, J. (2006). Mapping a campus-wide suicide prevention and mental health promotion strategy. Unpublished manuscript, University of Victoria.

 

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