Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among U.S. college students, with 1,100 students dying preventable deaths every year. Many thousands more college students attempt suicide each year. However, many are reluctant to seek help, in part because of lingering stigmas about mental illness.
UNCG School of Education Associate Professor Dr. Deborah Taub is working with other concerned faculty members, staff and students to change these tragic facts. Taub helped organize Friends Helping Friends, a peer training program that educates UNCG students about the warning signs of suicidal behavior. Students are given the tools to recognize and respond to classmates who exhibit these troubling signs.
In reviewing cases of college student suicide, Dr. Taub said, “We found that invariably, friends knew, but they didn’t know what to do.” Also, research shows that college students are much more likely to respond to help when it comes from a peer than from a mental health or medical professional.
Friends Helping Friends aims to arm UNCG students with the information they need to identify and assist classmates who may be suffering from severe emotional stress. To date, the program has reached more than 3,000 students since its 2009 inception. A study conducted by Taub found that 83 percent of trained students who encountered an at-risk classmate successfully used the skills they learned through Friends Helping Friends. Those strategies range from being a sympathetic listener to actually walking a classmate to the campus counseling center.
So why is suicide such a problem on college campuses? Dr. Taub said that young adulthood is when many serious mental illnesses, such as bi-polar disorder, first manifest themselves. Also, college students find themselves away from family and other long-time support networks for the first time.
According to the American College Health Association, forty percent of college students report having symptoms of depression, and approximately one in ten say they have seriously considered suicide in the past year. Such sobering numbers prove the need for a comprehensive suicide prevention program on campus.
Dr. Taub came to UNCG from Purdue University six years ago. Just before leaving Purdue, she helped that institution secure a $253,000 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to fund a suicide prevention program. At UNCG, she helped the university land the same three-year grant in 2009. UNCG was one of 17 campuses nationally to receive the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant.
“The programs are not very similar, since Purdue and UNCG are so different,” Dr. Taub said. Nevertheless, she said she learned a great deal from having gone through the process before.
One of the key lessons she learned from previous experience is that grant money should not be used to fund recurring expenses. Taub said that what often happens is that programs start strong but fizzle out once the grant money expires.
In order to prevent that from happening at UNCG, she and other organizers used the grant to create the curriculum for training students. That basic framework is now in place, so the program will be sustainable after the grant expires without significant additional investment by the university.
Friends Helping Friends recently was honored with a national award – the Gold Excellence Award from Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA.) Dr. Taub and other program administrators travelled to Phoenix in March to receive the Gold Excellence Award.
With Friends Helping Friends now established and running smoothly, Dr. Taub is working on a book spotlighting the success stories in suicide prevention on campuses across the country, including her own experiences at UNCG.
The problem of youth suicide is nothing new and even the best program cannot completely eliminate the threat. However, Friends Helping Friends is making a difference at UNCG, one student at a time.
“We try to expand the safety net,” Dr. Taub said.