UW Today

May 11, 2016

UW-led suicide prevention initiative planned for Washington colleges and universities

News and Information

More than 700 people turned out for the 2016 Huskies Hope & Help walk for suicide prevention and awareness April 30.

More than 700 people turned out for the 2016 Huskies Hope & Help walk for suicide prevention and awareness April 30.Mikaela Schilling / Jonathan Miao

The University of Washington is leading a new, four-year collaboration aimed at promoting mental health and preventing suicide at colleges and universities around the state.

The initiative is a partnership between Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention — an organization in the UW School of Social Work — and the New York-based Jed Foundation, which focuses on protecting emotional health and preventing suicide among college students. The effort kicked off May 10 at a Forefront conference in Bellevue, where 12 schools invited to participate met to learn about the program.

“We are working proactively in a very large-scale way to address suicide prevention,” said Jennifer Stuber, Forefront’s co-founder and faculty director.

“By involving colleges and universities around the state, we think we can have a powerful impact in helping to reduce suicides. These campuses can be leaders for the rest of the state.”

The Washington schools — including the UW’s three campuses and most of the state’s other public colleges and universities — are expected to take part in the JED Campus Program, which helps schools develop a framework to improve student mental health and prevent suicide and substance abuse. To accomplish this work, schools will establish interdisciplinary teams that include senior administrators and complete a survey at the start of the program, and again after three years, to assess the state of mental health on campus and evaluate their efforts.

The program provides clinicians and advisers that visit the schools and work with them to develop customized strategic plans. The schools will also participate in the Healthy Minds Study, an annual online survey looking at mental health among undergraduate and graduate students.

Each year, around 1,100 undergraduate students in the U.S. die by suicide. Stuber hopes the new Washington initiative can head off some of those tragedies.

“This is truly a prevention story,” said Stuber, an associate professor in the UW School of Social Work. “It’s about what we can do at the state level to prevent suicide. We want to be able to come back to the legislature and share the great work we’re doing.”

Representatives of participating schools will meet at an annual conference organized by Forefront to share experiences and showcase student-led projects around suicide prevention and mental health awareness.

The partnership was welcome news to Micia Vergara, president of Huskies for Suicide Prevention and Awareness and a UW senior in public health and the Law, Societies & Justice program.

“It’s up to colleges to take a proactive stance, to use the departments and resources and groups on campus to reach out to students,” she said. “I’ve never seen something that’s as broad of an effort before. Seeing this all come together is really cool.”

Including students in the effort, Vergara said, is key.

“Students can bring a fresh perspective,” she said. “It’s not just the researchers who are involved in this advocacy work. It’s definitely the responsibility of students to also translate this for their peers and make it accessible.”

John MacPhee, CEO of the Jed Foundation, said the campus program is focused “way upstream” from suicide prevention, with the goal of identifying students in distress long before they are in crisis. That can be achieved through measures such as having campus health centers screen for anxiety and depression when students come in for the flu, actively promoting counseling center services and training campus security to recognize the signs of a breakdown so they call an ambulance instead of police, he said.

But the factors leading to a suicide attempt are complex and intensely personal. Some students may have undiagnosed mental illnesses, while others may be struggling academically or have strained relationships with their parents. Since colleges’ student populations vary, MacPhee said, it’s important to develop individual plans that meet the needs of each institution.

“It’s not a one size fits all,” he said. “That’s why it can’t be prescriptive. We try to bring a framework, a way of thinking. Bringing people at the school around the table, talking to each other and understanding, can have a very profound effect.”

The statewide initiative is being funded by the Jolene McCaw Family Foundation, which will cover the cost of the study and the schools’ participation in the foundation program. A grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in partnership with the Washington State Department of Health, will fund the annual Forefront conference and student showcase.

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