In light of six recent suicide attempts at Cornell University, some have questioned whether higher education officials are doing enough to prevent suicide on college campuses.

According to national statistics on the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services website, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. About 1,100 students commit suicide nationwide each year and CAPS officials say the University is determined to help this number decline.

In order to accomplish this, there are numerous on-campus and community services that are committed to mental health issues. CAPS, University Health Service and the Mental Health Work Group have worked together over the last few years to develop broad-based and multi-dimensional services for all students.

MHWG was established in 2001 by Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student affairs, after the tragic death of a University student. The group brings together mental health professionals and organizations on campus, as well as the greater community, to provide mental health services for students. Since 2008, its main focus has been to develop better communication between services across campus.

Todd Sevig, CAPS director and MHWG chair, said the University started a campus-wide initiative in 2001 to promote suicide prevention but efforts have increased in the last few years.

“Really in the last three years we’ve taken a very aggressive stance on suicide prevention, to be more active, to be more out there and to really get the message out that we don’t want any students to die by suicide,” Sevig said.

Sevig said the key to bettering mental health services is listening to students’ needs and providing them with accessible services and various educational tools.

“We are trying to literally reach every person, be it faculty, staff and students,” Sevig said. “That is our goal. That’s our shared vision.”

One suicide prevention program offered by CAPS is called Question, Persuade, Refer — an in-person workshop for University students, faculty and staff that trains people to recognize symptoms of mental illness and how to react if a student or colleague shows warning signs of suicide. The program, which has assisted approximately 3,000 people on campus thus far, is the most direct way to decrease the stigma associated with mental illness, Sevig said.

Another resource that is committed to helping students in distress includes the MHWG website, which offers students a place to find available services and encourages family, friends, faculty and staff to take action if they know someone in need.

On the CAPS website there are three video resources, created by the CAPS Student Advisory Board, that teach students how to make their first appointments at CAPS, how to initiate conversations with professors for help and how to assist a friend in need.

Sevig said resources like MHWG and CAPS are excellent for providing assistance, but people on campus need to take more active measures to prevent future tragedies.

“It’s great to have all the awareness,” Sevig said. “But I think we are beyond awareness. I think we need tools; we need to connect when this is happening right now to here’s what I need to do.”

Robert Winfield, director of UHS and chief health officer for the University, said though there are many resources for students on campus, sometimes the students are “just too immobilized by their depression,” and they do not reach out for help.

“While there are a lot of options, we, as a society, don’t know how to reach out to people,” Winfield said. “We don’t know how to get to those people because part of their illness is isolation, so it’s a kind of catch-22. It’s very hard for those people to reach out, so this is a real dilemma, and we don’t really know what to do.”

According to MiTalk — a website for University students seeking mental health resources — 11.3 percent of University students in Ann Arbor reported in a survey that they had thought of attempting suicide at least once during an academic year. In addition, 1.1 percent reported that they had actually attempted suicide at least once.

The Big Ten Student Suicide study conducted approximately 15 years ago is the only scientific research that has focused on college student suicides. According to the study, out of 100,000 college students in the Big Ten, 7.5 students commit suicide each year.

Though Sevig was not able to provide the exact number of suicides on the University’s campus, he said the University is slightly below the national average for student deaths by suicide. However, based on annual University and American College Health Association surveys, Sevig said a high number of students report signs of distress and thoughts of suicide.

Sevig added that there needs to be more scientific research that looks at mental illnesses and the precursors that provoke suicide attempts.

Currently, the University, along with the other schools in the Big Ten, is participating in a study that is analyzing suicide among college students from 2000 to 2010. The goal is to understand what is happening from a systematic point of view in order to know where to focus prevention efforts.

Sevig said he hopes the University’s campaign efforts to “do something to help yourself and do something to help a friend” will ultimately provide the resources students need in times of crisis.

“We’ve really been trying to push this community of caring, web of support, and do something even if you don’t know exactly what to do,” he said.

For local resources about mental illness and suicide prevention check out:

Mental Health Work Group
Private Ann Arbor Mental Health Providers
Emergency help call 911 or Psychiatric Emergency (734) 996-4747

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