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Colleges' failure to mandate suicide prevention training is ignorant and reckless (opinion)

Like countless educators across America, I have completed active shooter training. The public university where I teach requires it. Officially, I have been instructed on how to run, hide and fight in order to ensure that my students and I survive in the event that an aspiring assassin enters our classroom.

Unofficially, I am as thoroughly prepared to survive a mass shooting as I am to perform an appendectomy. That is to say, not at all, because I am a professor of creative writing and a lawyer by trade. Hence, survival combat, like general surgery, falls decidedly outside my range of expertise.

Thankfully, I have never experienced an active attacker situation, and data show that my chances of doing so are quite slim. In contrast, however, my chances of encountering a suicidal student are disturbingly high. According to the World Health Organization, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 29.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that in less than three years of teaching, I have spoken with several students struggling with suicidal thoughts. I have personally escorted them to our counseling center, driven them to the emergency room and even accompanied them to doctor’s appointments. I have lost track of how many students I’ve called, texted, emailed or met with (either in person or via Zoom since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic) after reading worrying essays, stories or poems they’ve written. And I’m not alone.

Every other educator with whom I’ve spoken about this issue has plenty of their own stories to share -- and they seem to be piling up at an even faster rate since the start of the pandemic. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of thousands of Americans last summer confirmed that we’re not imagining this uptick in distress among our students. According to the survey, more than a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds reported seriously considering suicide within the previous 30 days, while three-quarters reported one or more adverse mental or behavioral health symptoms.

More recently, an extensive meta-analysis found that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant psychological impact on college students worldwide. When reached for comment, Kavita Batra, lead author and a biostatistician at the University of Las Vegas School of Medicine, noted, “Given the well-established association between psychological morbidities and suicidal ideation, educational institutions need to prioritize suicide prevention training programs targeted at students, faculty and staff.”

Still, my university, like far too many, does not require suicide prevention training. As opposed to active shooter training, which is mandatory for all faculty and staff, suicide prevention training remains optional. This is despite the fact that fewer than 1 percent of all gun casualties in the United States are the result of mass shootings, while roughly 60 percent are the result of suicides -- for which youth remain at a disproportionately high risk.

Failing to mandate suicide prevention training at colleges and universities in spite of these statistics isn’t just misguided or negligent. It’s ignorant and reckless. I say this not only as a professor concerned for her students but also as a suicide attempt survivor who tried to end her own life during graduate school. This is partly why I organized an optional QPR suicide prevention gatekeeper training for our creative writing faculty this semester.

QPR -- which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer -- is a popular, evidence-based suicide prevention training program, and data show that it yields positive short-term and long-term outcomes. It appropriately identifies faculty and staff as gatekeepers who can recognize warning signs of potential suicidality among our students, ask them the right questions, encourage them to get help when needed and refer them to relevant mental health resources. I include myself among the educators recently referenced in an Inside Higher Ed article that noted, “Professors feel a responsibility toward students who are suffering and would welcome better -- even mandatory -- training on the topic [of mental health], according to a COVID-19-era report from Boston University’s School of Public Health, the Mary Christie Foundation and the Healthy Minds Network.”

But procuring such training for my department wasn’t easy. I had to visit websites, fill out forms, send emails and attest that at least 10 faculty members from our small department would attend over Zoom. In short, I had to make a case for why we deserved suicide prevention training. I imagine that was because the two highly skilled counselors who ultimately led our excellent training session did so in addition to already serving as staff psychologists at our counseling center -- which, like most university counseling centers, is disturbingly overwhelmed and underresourced. In other words, training us in potentially life-saving gatekeeper interventions meant these psychologists had even less time for their own potentially life-saving student counseling appointments.

What’s more, students at my coastal North Carolina university have endured an exceptional amount of trauma over the past several years. Like all students, they’ve been hit hard by the pandemic, but they’ve also been hit hard by its underlying causes, including global warming, which keeps slamming us with hurricanes. In the years directly preceding the pandemic, Hurricanes Florence and Dorian cut short two consecutive fall semesters. As a result, some of our students don’t even know what a normal academic year at a university feels like, because man-made catastrophes disguised as natural disasters have interrupted every one of theirs.

Nevertheless, our students are remarkably resilient and well informed with respect to mental health. Most of them do not hesitate to seek psychological help, and they recognize self-care as vital to overall health. In other words, they are not failing to pursue the help they need. Rather, we are failing to provide it.

I’m not saying that mandatory trainings represent the best suicide prevention strategy available to protect our students from harm. Far from it. Considering that half of all suicides and three-quarters of all homicides are gun related, gun control represents the most obvious and powerful strategy when it comes to keeping our students alive and safe. Even so, America is abysmally behind the rest of the world when it comes to meaningful gun control.

As a university professor, I can’t rewrite gun laws, let alone force people to follow them. I can, however, listen to my students and advocate for them when they are in crisis -- and let me assure you, they are. American students today are enduring more collective trauma than any in a generation. The same can be said of our woefully overextended college counselors, who are experiencing unprecedented levels of collective secondary trauma. As faculty members, the most effective and immediate way to support our students and counseling staff is to be responsible gatekeepers when it comes to student mental health.

Fortunately, effective training programs can teach us how to become exactly that in just a couple hours. If only educational institutions would mandate them. Because the active attacker students are most likely to face isn’t a masked gunman. It’s themselves.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. For crisis lines outside the United States, consult the International Association for Suicide Prevention’s database here.



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