Suicide prevention program takes a new approach, works to fight violence against self

Online Poster

Online Poster

People who threaten to commit or attempt suicide are usually told to seek professional help, but not everyone does, said Paul Joffe, director of the suicide prevention program and a counselor at the Counseling Center.

The suicide prevention program at the University requires students to attend four counseling sessions or risk being forced to leave the University. While traditional psychology considers suicide an act of distress or desperation, Joffe said their program is unique in that it treats suicide as an act of violence. Joffe argues that just as murders or assaults are not dismissed as acts of helplessness, neither should acts of violence against one’s self.

The current suicide prevention program has been in place for 20 years. Approximately 2,000 students have gone through the program and not one of them went on to commit suicide. Joffe said the program has cut the number of suicides at the University by half since its creation. Compared to other Big Ten schools, the University’s suicide rate is half the average. Joffe said the suicides that have taken place on campus have happened “out of the blue,” with no previous referrals to the Counseling Center.

There are an average of 140 suicide attempts on campus each year and usually one or more actual suicides. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in 2000. There are anywhere between eight and 25 attempted suicides for every one suicide.

The University’s program was developed after Joffe conducted research with the county coroner’s office on 19 students who had committed suicide in Champaign County during the late ’70s and early ’80s. The majority of them were known to be suicidal, but only one of them had a recorded visit with a psychologist following an attempt or threat. When the program first started, the four sessions were voluntary but students were very defensive and denied their suicidal actions.

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    “If left to their own devices, students were not getting the level of care they needed,” Joffe said.

    There are about 30 mental health counselors available between the McKinley Health Center’s program and the Counseling Center, Joffe said. There is a strong reporting network of more than 1,000 people who are mandated to record and pass along a suicide incident, but Joffe also urges students to look out for one another. People are 450 times more likely to go on to commit suicide after making an attempt or threat. For this reason, Joffe said students should take all suicide threats seriously.

    “The most protective thing to do is to contact the University and make a report,” Joffe said. “I’ve heard it said, ‘Better to have a friend than a friendship.'”

    Following the University’s lead, other schools are adopting programs with the same approach. The University of Washington-Seattle just started a similar pilot program last February, said Maurice Warner, assistant director of the Counseling Center. The basic structure of their program is the same, but in Washington it only applies to threats and attempts that take place on campus and only mandates employees in the division of student affairs to file reports. Since February, 15 to 20 reports have been addressed in their program and 75 percent of those students have gone through the counseling sessions.

    Warner said it’s too early to know if the program will continue to be successful or if it will become a permanent part of their counseling services. Administrators and staff at university counseling centers across the country are always discussing ways they can protect students, and Warner said he knows there are many centers that are very interested in the model used at the University.

    The need for suicide-prevention plans has recently gained the attention of the state and national legislators. On Aug. 11, Governor Rod Blagojevich signed the Suicide Prevention, Education and Treatment Act into law. Tammy Leonard, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the act will establish a strategic planning committee, which will then work on creating statewide suicide prevention and awareness plans. The act will also identify areas that need improvement in the current system while creating a speaker’s bureau, training programs and up to five pilot programs. All programs will be contingent on funding.

    Congress passed the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act in early September, which authorizes $82 million over the next three years to support state and local suicide prevention programs. The act is named in honor of the late son of Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who committed suicide in his college apartment a day before his 22nd birthday. President Bush has indicated that he intends to sign it, but it’s unclear as to when that will happen.

    Jennifer Smulson, a spokesperson for the public policy branch of the American Psychological Association, said the legislation came out of a different plan called the Campus Care and Counseling Act. A portion of that initiative is now part of the Smith act and Smulson said the association will continue to work with Congress on some of the provisions. There is a growing number of students who enter college with mental and behavioral problems and any investment that can be made towards helping students is important, Smulson said.

    “It (the act) really has an impact on the whole well-being of people who are the future of our nation,” Smulson said.