Suicide attempts on rise; officials respond
An increase in reports of suicidal behavior during the fall semester at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has led to attention and proposed action by university administration, according to officials.
Charles Donaldson, vice chancellor for educational, student services and student life, said there were more reports related to students “with suicidal ideations” during the fall 2012 semester than any other he has seen throughout his 40-year career at UALR. “That was a red flag for me,” he said, because those behaviors are typically more common during the university’s spring semester.
“We have had reports of students in distress with suicidal ideations,” Donaldson said, “but what we’re experiencing is happening nationwide, at colleges and universities, and particularly campuses where you have on-campus housing.”
Debbie Gentry, executive director of student housing, said she saw an increased number of reports related to “discussion of self harm or actual attempt at self harm” last semester.
“In fall, there were more of those reports than I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” she said in reference to her 21-year career at UALR. “I would consider it an anomaly.”
Gentry said there are a variety of societal issues affecting the mental health of college students at UALR and elsewhere in the country. Among the issues she mentioned were the economy, politics and finances.
“The university is a microcosm of society, and everything that’s happening out there happens in the college environment as well,” Donaldson said, “and what we’re seeing as a nation, as a world … there’s a lot more stress and we’re all having to deal with it — and that’s true for students who are coming to us.”
In a recent American College Counseling Association study, nearly three-fourths of 228 counselors reported increased crises among college students in the past five years. Another 42 percent of study participants reported an increase in self-injury, and 24 percent an increase in eating disorders.
Donaldson said students report to the his office, as well as others in Student Services, for a variety of mental and emotional issues. UALR also has a number of military veterans, who sometimes suffer from such conditions as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Donaldson said.
Donaldson said that when he saw the rise in incidents at UALR and looked at some of the national statistics, he got the UALR Behavior Intervention Team together and discussed ways to address these problems with “the appropriate services and intervention for our students.”
“It’s nothing unique to UALR,” Gentry said. “The same things happen elsewhere on campuses nationwide, so it isn’t anything unique. But there are a lot of factors affecting people’s mental health right now.”
The UALR Behavioral Intervention Team has started enacting measures in an attempt to be more proactive in the fight against suicidal self-endangering behavior. UBIT deals with individuals after an incident has occurred or if he or she has exhibited concerning behavior, but Donaldson said that he wants to “complete the loop.”
“Obviously there has been a shift in behaviors, and we need to prepare ourselves for it,” Donaldson added. “We can’t wait, we don’t want to wait, until there has been a crisis situation. So we’ve spent the past few weeks … putting together information that we can roll out this spring semester that will help the campus professionals better deal with students and signs of distress,” he said.
The Department of Educational, Student Services and Student Life is currently in the final stages of producing informational literature such as brochures and advertisements designed to educate faculty, students and staff in assisting distressed individuals.
Two of the handouts that Donaldson said the campus population can expect to see this spring are titled “Students in Distress: A Guide for Faculty, Staff and Students” and “First Responders Contact List.” The materials are designed to help individuals identify signs of distress, communicate with troubled students, intervene or assist in emergency situations and contact the appropriate party to help the distressed individual.
“We will blanket the campus with information that will make us all buy into the opportunities and challenges that we see here,” Donaldson said, and put our total campus in a position to better intervene and help our students.”
He said that UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson has approved the initiative and he is confident he will gain the remaining support needed to make the project “the total package.”
Gentry said, “the more we can be prepared to address the issues and prevent a possible situation … then that’s what we want to do. Intervene as quickly as possible and plug people into the best resources to get them back on track.”
John MacPhee, executive director of the Jed Foundation, said in a Bloomberg interview that depression and anxiety are by far the most prevalent mental health problems students confront. According to MacPhee, the second-leading cause of death among college students is suicide. He said that suicide accounts for about 1,100 student deaths in the United States each year, second only to accidents such as accidental overdoses and drunk driving wrecks, many of which may be related to depression or anxiety.
“It’s concerning to parents and teachers and administrators and staff,” Gentry said. “I mean, no one wants to lose a student. So we just want to do whatever we can to intervene as soon as possible and get them the best resources we can to try to get them healthy.”