By Daria Purdy ’19
Assistant News Editor
September is nationally recognized as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and this year Providence College is doing more than ever to prevent suicide on campus. PC is one of 17 schools in the nation, and the only school in Rhode Island, to receive a Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Dr. James Campbell, assistant vice president for student development and compliance, spearheaded the efforts to secure the federal grant. The grant was written last fall, and that following spring it was awarded to PC.
The grant, which amounts to $306,000 over three years, will focus on raising prevention awareness, building infrastructure for suicide prevention, and promoting collaboration on and off campus on the issue of prevention. The grant will not be used to fund direct counseling or therapy services at the College.
A key part of the infrastructure that the grant seeks to build is gatekeeper training. A gatekeeper is an individual that can help direct someone in crisis or contemplating suicide to resources that they need.
One part of the gatekeeper training that has already been given to Resident Assitants and Orientation Leaders is an online course developed by Kognito. Campbell said the online course is meant to be “more live than listing some text about things to say, and is meant to be more interactive.” The training is a simulation in which the participants learned how to act when confronted by an individual who is contemplating suicide.
The second phase of the gatekeeper training is called PC-Lifelines. This training will help teach gatekeepers how to make an authentic connection with those deemed at risk for suicide, and will emphasize the concept of circling back, or checking on the individual to make sure that they are cultivating a sense of social connectedness.
The grant will also allow for the appointment of an outreach coordinator who will orchestrate efforts in education and awareness raising. These efforts will include building network infrastructure, developing and expanding a crisis response plan, mitigating access to lethal means, providing educational seminars for students and families, and promoting prevention hotlines and textlines.
The outreach coordinator, and other staff affiliated with the grant’s purpose, will specifically try to reach out to students deemed at greater risk for suicide. Campbell said the goal of this effort is to make sure students at greater risk “stay connected to the college and its resources.”
The students who could potentially be at greater risk for suicide include those who are on or returning from medical leave, LGBTQ students, students of color, survivors of sexual assault, student athletes, and first generation students. The grant is meant for all students, but its efforts will place an emphasis on these groups. As Campbell said, if any student “feels rejected, marginalized, or oppressed in any way, it stands to reason that they are more at risk.”
Throughout the proposal and implementation of the grant, student groups such as Student Congress, Board of Multicultural Student Association, and SHEPARD have been consulted and included. Active Minds, which works to raise awareness of mental health issues, has specifically been involved with the grant. Cassandra Caggiano ’18, co-president of Active Minds, said, “The grant directly supports many of the efforts Active Minds works towards. It will fund many lectures, events, and discussions on campus to get people talking more about the stigma around mental illness.”
Dr. Rosemary Mugan, director of staff psychologists at PC, sees the grant as an opportunity to promote more inter-departmental coordination on the issue of prevention. She said, “I would like to see more of an integration of our programming related to mental health and resilience go across divisions. We have been collaborating more and more with Athletics and I see this as another opportunity to cross over with the entire community.”
Furthermore, Mugan commented, “The fact that the SAMHSA grant specifically prohibits funding to go to clinical services speaks to how the topic of mental health is a campus-wide conversation that needs to continue.”
The stigma surrounding mental illness is a possible hindrance in the effort of suicide prevention. Students might be reluctant to seek counseling if they perceive that they will be judged negatively for it. In response to this possible stigma, Caggiano said, “I really believe that because of the efforts of Active Minds and administration, we have allowed for our campus to become an inclusive environment that promotes discussing difficult topics—such as mental health.” Caggiano goes on to say that she feels much more comfortable saying she is going to the counseling center now, as a senior, than she did when she was a freshman.
Concurring with Caggiano’s opinion, Mugan said, “The campus, including Active Minds, Student Affairs, and all the offices in it, has done quite a bit of work to reduce the stigma of mental illness. As someone who has been a staff member in the personal counseling center for over eleven years now in addition to being an alumnus, the number of students who have sought out services at the personal counseling center have grown tremendously over the years.”
However, Mugan warns against falling into complacency. She said stigma can still be present, just in a different form, and observed that some students feel their reason for going to the counseling center are not as important or difficult as some of their peers’ reasons for seeking counseling. Mugan said, “It is important to get the message out that it is okay to access our services when you are in distress, even if it is only for one session, before a crisis ensues.”
Despite the apparent reduction of stigma at PC, the usefulness of suicide prevention cannot be denied. Of the 582 students seen in the center in the 2015-16 school year, 17 percent reported that they had thought about suicide during the previous month. Forty-seven percent of students reported that had thoughts about death and 58 percent reported that they had felt hopeless. The grant will help bring services to the members of the community who are most vulnerable, potentially saving lives at Providence College.