The deaths of three students by suicide at New Jersey’s Rowan University this semester has sparked new conversations about the importance of mental health and safety services on college campuses. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year olds in the United States, and a recent national survey found that 2 percent of college students attempted suicide within the past year.
EDC’s Bonnie Lipton, a campus suicide prevention expert with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, says that many colleges and universities want to do more to prevent suicide.
“In practice, effective prevention is hard to do because it has to extend well beyond the campus counseling center,” she says. “Residence life services, administration, campus police, and other campus groups all have to be involved.”
And there’s the issue of funding, too. Hiring counselors, offering mental health services, leading prevention trainings, and rolling out initiatives that promote wellness and connectedness all require financial resources.
“Health and wellness prevention staff and counselors are often stretched thin, simultaneously treating students but also training faculty staff and students on signs of suicide and how to refer students to help,” Lipton says.
How can campuses improve their prevention programs? It’s all about coordination, collaboration, and planning. Here, Lipton identifies three actions that colleges and universities can take to prevent suicide on campus.
1. Assess the need for mental health services
Surveys that ask students about their mental health needs and perceptions about counseling are foundational to providing effective services. They often provide valuable information about the incidence of students’ mental health concerns, how students feel about using their campus counseling service, and who students turn to when they need help.
This information can help schools and counselors identify who is struggling, what kinds of support they need, and which campus stakeholders need to be part of the prevention conversation. That data can serve as a powerful argument for greater investment in counseling and mental health services, says Lipton.
“Surveys can help you make your case to university leadership,” she says. “You can point to the survey, and say, ‘Look, we found that this many students are struggling academically because they are experiencing anxiety or depression. We need to do more.’”
2. Make it comprehensive
Suicide prevention requires multiple, complementary efforts that address different aspects of the issue. For colleges and universities, comprehensive suicide prevention includes identifying students at risk for suicide, providing effective care and treatment for students with mental health challenges, and investing in “upstream” programs that promote positive life skills, wellness, and connectedness across the entire student body.
Lipton says that campuses can use a number of other strategies to help promote better mental health and well-being, including:
- Implementing bystander support campaigns that encourage students to support peers who need help and to build connections between students
- Running gatekeeper trainings that train faculty, staff, and student leaders to identify the warning signs of suicide and to know how to intervene
- Establishing a prescription drop box where students can deposit unused medications
- Making mental health services on- and off-campus more accessible and culturally appropriate
“No one thing will stop suicide,” Lipton says. “Campuses should really have multiple programs and initiatives underway in order to reach as many students as possible.”
3. Develop clear policies
Finally, it is essential for colleges and universities to develop clear protocols for what to do if a student is in crisis or is hospitalized. Protocols can help counselors, medical staff, and school leadership act quickly and follow established procedures.
Lipton points to St. John’s University in New York as an example of how clear policies and collaboration with external partners can promote student health.
“St. John’s created a memorandum of understanding with nearby Northwell Hospital that when a student needs to be hospitalized for mental health concerns, the university and the hospital will work closely on the student’s treatment and care,” she says. “The university is notified when the student is about to be discharged, and then university, hospital, and student collaborate on determining the student’s treatment plan. It helps smooth that transition back to school.”
Lipton also recommends that every campus have a plan for what to do if a student dies by suicide. This includes determining ahead of time the process for notifying the community, having a clear campus policy on memorials, making resources available to students who are grieving, and working with campus and local media on safe news reporting after a suicide death.
“I always tell the campuses I work with, ‘I hope you’ll never have to deal with this, but it’s better to have a written plan and never have to use it,’” Lipton says. “Having a protocol is really important, because it helps people know what to do.”
For more information about campus suicide prevention, visit SPRC’s website.