CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As the end of the spring semester nears, excitement can be at an all-time high, but so can stress, burnout, difficult decisions and a variety of other factors that loom on the horizon. Not all students have the resiliency to deal with these issues effectively. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimates that there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses yearly in the U.S, and one in 10 students has experienced suicidal thoughts or planned to harm him or herself at some point during an academic career.
Imagine you come across someone on campus who is clearly in distress. What would you do? Do you know what you would say?
“People are generally uncomfortable when confronted with a suicidal person, sometimes due to the bystander effect or generally not knowing if they will do more harm than good by intervening,” said Dr. Pam Greene, Assistant Professor of Nursing at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Bringing to bear her forty years’ experience in suicide prevention, Greene teamed up with the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi University Counseling Center in 2016 to roll out the “Suicide Awareness Focuses on Everyone” (SAFE) program. Funded by the $260,000 Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention grant awarded to A&M-Corpus Christi by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the plan called for educating faculty, staff and students to recognize when someone is in need of help.
“I have to give credit to the University Counseling Center for their ongoing dedication to this area,” said Greene. “They have a history of providing outreach and training programs, so I feel like I am part of a larger effort in suicide awareness.”
With the addition of the At-Risk For Interactive Online Training Program in 2017, SAFE shifted into high gear by affording all Islanders the opportunity to learn how to recognize and intervene appropriately with a distressed student from their own computer. The program allows users to hone their helping skills within the virtual safety of a guided game-style module. The At-Risk training helps people to normalize responses to stress, eliminating the stigma associated with asking for help when one is overwhelmed. The training also highlights possible signs of emotional distress which may include binge drinking or drug use, giving away prized possessions, sleep problems and heightened anxiety.
“The system is designed to teach you to know what to do, and how to help someone on campus, even if you are not a trained mental health professional,” said Greene. “You can help stabilize a person in distress before he or she sees a trained counselor.”
During the training, users engage in conversations with emotionally responsive student avatars who exhibit signs of psychological distress. The training modules allow users to explore multiple dialogues to different interpersonal scenarios, somewhat like a practice chess game, so that the user may test-drive phrasing and wording to gain knowledge and confidence for effective intervention with a distressed student. Users may repeat scenarios, select verbal responses and learn how certain comments, although well intended, may alienate a distressed person, while other phrases allow for openness.
There is a version of At Risk for college students and another version for faculty and staff. Both trainings can be accessed on the University Counseling Center website at http://counseling.tamucc.edu. The training can be completed in approximately 40 minutes and following completion, users can download a certificate of completion.
Greene is working with Dr. Ini Inyang, an international student in the College of Business at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, to monitor anonymous participant data and review quantitative evaluations of the SAFE program.
“The At-Risk system offers cross-cultural training, perhaps for those international students whose cultures have differing perceptions of how one should engage someone who is thinking about suicide,” said Inyang.
Additionally, Dr. Theresa Sharpe, Associate Director at the University Counseling Center and counseling center staff have played a significant role in promoting the At Risk trainings to Islander students, staff and faculty. The members of the SAFE grant team look forward to continuing to promote mental health awareness and stigma reduction and suicide prevention efforts on campus though diverse and culturally sensitive programming.
“We are mindful that the daily stressors of a business major may be different from a student studying graphic design, in addition to cultural influences,” said Greene. “Most importantly, we are focused on Islanders’ overall wellbeing and holistic experiences, not just on suicide prevention.”