UW News

September 25, 2015

Forefront hosts state’s first higher education suicide prevention conference

News and Information

UW Master of Social Work students attend a training by Forefront's Sue Eastgard.

UW Master of Social Work students attend a training by Forefront’s Sue Eastgard.Forefront

Each year, around 1,100 undergraduate students around the United States die by suicide; in the last six years alone, 18 University of Washington students have taken their own lives.

“That number sounds horrific, and it is, but it’s also squarely in line with the national average,” said Lauren Davis, director of school and campus programs at Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention, an interdisciplinary organization based in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.

That reality prompted Forefront to organize the first annual Washington State Suicide Prevention in Higher Education Conference. Held Sept. 28 and 29 at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, the event will bring together educators, administrators and other staff from post-secondary institutions around the state to discuss suicide prevention efforts on campus. It will include sessions on topics including how to recognize and respond to suicidal students, the link between suicide and traumatic brain injury and ways to promote resiliency and coping strategies.

The goal, said keynote speaker Donn Marshall, is to encourage colleges and universities to develop comprehensive, campus-wide strategies to combat suicide. The traditional model of relying on college counseling centers as the sole means of suicide prevention simply doesn’t work, he said.

“If we’re just depending on our mental health clinicians doing suicide prevention on campus, we’re going to lose,” said Marshall, the associate dean of students and director of counseling, health and wellness at the University of Puget Sound. “There are going to be lives lost.”

Colleges and universities should instead have trained “gatekeepers” across campus, Marshall said, from janitorial staff to resident advisors — anyone who has regular contact with students and can spot warning signs and take appropriate action. Faculty and staff need to know how to respond not only to students in crisis, he said, but also to concerned friends and classmates.

“Knowing there will be action taken is really critical,” he said. “If you go to the dean and say, ‘My best friend is engaging in self-harming behavior,’ what will that dean do? You’re risking your friendship, in some ways, so you need to be motivated to take that risk because you know there will be an intervention.”

Current approaches to suicide prevention at colleges and universities, Marshall said, run the gamut from nothing to engaging in a wide variety of practices. At UW, Forefront advocates for policy changes and promotes evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention.

In 2013 the organization launched Husky Help & Hope, an initiative that includes training for students, faculty, and staff; data-gathering and analysis; partnering with student organizations to promote behavioral health; and protocols for responding to students in distress. Earlier this year, Forefront partnered with Facebook to develop content and tools to help suicidal people and tell concerned observers how they can help.

A primary challenge in reducing suicide is a lack of training among clinical professionals, Marshall said. Many psychology and social work graduate programs don’t offer courses about suicide, he said, leaving clinical professionals unprepared to deal with a complex and multifaceted issue.

But the most persistent obstacle may be the stigma surrounding suicide, Marshall said. He recalled an email he recently got from the head of a college counseling center, who told Marshall that campus administrators wanted to do more around suicide prevention but were concerned that might create a perception of the college as a place plagued by suicides.

The reality, Marshall said, is that suicides happen everywhere — the University of Pennsylvania recently had a string of well-publicized suicides, as did Tulane University and Appalachian State University.

“Our very best practices may not prevent a campus from having suicides,” he said. “We save lives one at a time, and the tragedy is that we lose lives one at a time as well.”

The conference will be the first of five funded through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in partnership with the Washington State Department of Health. Davis hopes next week’s event will catalyze colleges and universities across the state.

“The hope is that people get fired up about this and take on the charge at their respective campuses,” she said.