Suicide prevention is getting more attention on college campuses nationwide, a development that should benefit undergraduate and graduate students alike as the number of institutions boosting their antisuicide efforts grows.
By Sep. 30, 30 additional colleges and universities will receive grant money through the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, says Richard McKeon, PhD, a special expert on suicide prevention at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Through the act, introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and championed by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) whose son Garrett committed suicide in 2003, four-year colleges, universities and community colleges can apply for grants to fund suicide prevention programs. The act contained provisions that were part of the Campus Care and Counseling Act, which was developed by APA members working with APA's Education Directorate.
Twenty-two schools, including Howard University, Vanderbilt University and Daytona Beach Community College, were awarded three-year grants in the program's first year, fiscal year 2005, McKeon says. The second round of grants will award a total of $2.3 million by the end of this fiscal year to 30 institutions to fund antisuicide programs.
The grant money, which is matched by each institution, pays for training of "gatekeepers," people at a school who interact daily with students such as faculty, chaplains, resident advisers and coaches who might notice if a student is distressed; suicide risk assessment training for counseling center staff; development of suicide hotlines and educational campaigns; and the development of crisis response plans to take care of students at risk for suicide.
Although the grants target undergraduates, graduate students can also benefit from these increased services, experts note. In fact, according to the Big 10 Student Suicide Study, graduate students have a higher suicide rate than undergraduates. The study also found that female graduate students had a higher suicide rate than women in their age group who were not in college, which did not hold true for male graduate students.
A paper produced by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in October 2004 cited the Big 10 study as the most comprehensive report on the incidence of suicides in undergraduate and graduate school populations by age, gender and race. Funded by a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant, the resource center supports suicide prevention programs around the country.
Published in 1997, the Big 10 study examined 281 student suicides recorded at 12 Midwestern campuses from 1980 to 1990.
Graduate students struggle with financial stress, multiple responsibilities and career choices, notes Diane DePalma, PhD, director of the University Counseling Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Her university used its $75,000 grant to fund a variety of undergraduate initiatives in the 2005-2006 school year, and is considering reaching out this academic year to more graduate students, DePalma says.
The increased funding provides assistance to graduate students in another way: Many campus counseling centers benefiting from the law employ psychology trainees as interns. For example, Howard University wants to use part of its $75,000 grant to allow psychology predoctoral interns to train undergraduates, faculty and administrators how to recognize the signs of suicidal behavior and persuade someone to seek help, says Donna Holland Barnes, PhD, principal investigator for the grant and a member of the research faculty of Howard's psychiatry department.