More than “I” in Suicide
Suicide. The word sends chills down your spine and makes your heart drop when referring to someone you know. But when you add suicide to a college setting– that feeling may become more intensified because of the number of students suffering from a mental illness. According to NAMI, when looking at young adults and teens, 1 in 5 live with a mental health condition—half develop the condition by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.
Suicide is a problem that deeply affects more people than just the person who preceded in death. In fact, in the college world, suicide affects so many people and in different ways. Students, professors and faculty, and campus law enforcement are just some of the main people who suicide will hit in a highly intense environment.
In the state of Wisconsin, suicide is a prominent issue among adolescents to young adults. According to a QPR presentation by Barbara Moser, Chair of Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, suggests that from the ages of 15-24, suicide is the second leading cause of death. This age group includes high school to college students.
It isn’t just the pressures of homework, quizzes, exams, and projects that are the reason behind college students experiencing suicidal feelings , it’s also can be the change from a life at home to a life at college.
Lori Bokowy, a PHD student in Community & Behavioral Health Promotion and Interim Mental Health Outreach Coordinator for the office of Health, Promotion, and Wellness at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, sees the transition from high school home life to college life as a possible high risk transition time.
“There’s that uniqueness in this phase of life (when) young adults are transitioning out of homes, taking on more responsibilities, and becoming more independent … (Also) dealing with the pressures of finances and juggling schedules,” Bokowy said.
Expenses, additional responsibilities and activities, jobs, and many other activities are just some of the pressures that can accumulate stress on students when entering young adulthood life and college. Although the pressures of college build up there are resources for college students who want help and are looking for help. For example, at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Bokowy listed numerous amounts of resources for students to be able to go to for help if they are in a crisis, such as the university counseling services, Let’s Talk program, crisis counselors, UWM Police Department officers (who are trained in crisis intervention), and weekly on campus mindfulness groups such as NAMI and Active Minds.
And although Bokowy said there’s many other programs offered that will help students in crisis. Much like private universities, private universities and colleges also provide programs for students who are in crisis.
Mount Mary University provides resources such as counseling support and student support consultant who are there to help students through the trials that they are encountering. And just like UW- Milwaukee, Mount Mary University also has an Active Minds chapter located on campus.
Terri Jashinsky, associate professor in the graduate program of counseling, advocates for student mental health on campus and understands the power of visiting a mental health counselor.
“People really benefit from counseling and getting support when they’re experiencing mental health concerns,” Jashinsky said.
Peer support, support from a counselor, and support from your family are all options that students on campus have in order to help them through this transition or even help them through any issues they face while they are in college. And although some student’s families are far, Jashinsky doesn’t underestimate the power of staying connected with your family members while they are in college.
“Maintaining an ongoing communication with loved ones is important,” Jashinsky said.
Professors and Faculty
To date, there is no specific data that covers suicide when looking at professors and faculty. However, when looking at men, there is a distinct difference at the impacts of stress levels and where suicide lands in ranks among the genders.
According to Moser, Wisconsin men from the ages of 45-59 have the highest rate of suicide. And when recalling what kind of help there are for faculty and professors on campuses, Bokowy mentions that most of the counseling services are focused around students since students are what drives the fund. However, she points out that if a colleague was in need of help, they wouldn’t be turned down.
“As staff, we have access to Staywell Wisconsin portal,” Bokowy said.
The Staywell Wisconsin portal, as described by their website, is available to employees, retirees and their spouses enrolled in the State of Wisconsin or Wisconsin Public Employers Group Health Insurance Programs. The portal offers services to help its clients reach their goals by coaching and workshops. These services are aimed to help work towards better mental health and outlook.
Although college campuses are a small community within a greater community, they are still areas that are in need of protection, prevention, and awareness when considering the relevance of suicide of campuses.
Chief Tom Kujawa is the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay’s chief of police and oversees all law enforcement functions, safety and security of the buildings, and emergency management situations. He is in charge of the 11 police officers that are with UW- Green Bay and has been in both state and local law enforcement since 1977. Chief Kujawa is not blind to the rising trend in suicide by college students and said that this can affect his officers in many ways.
Officers are exposed to suicide in many different ways. It can affect them both when dealing with potential suicides, walking in on a suicide, and then even dealing with suicide internally. And when talking about college students alone, officers need to be not only prepared for this type of incident to happen but to be prepared if something is about to happen.
“We haven’t had a lot of actual suicides,” Kujawa said. “I’m trying to think how many completed suicides we’ve had [but] we’ve had a lot of attempted suicides.”
On August 12, 2009, a student by the name of Joshua Okon, 21, attending the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay took his own life after jumping from the roof of the David A. Cofrin Library. The tragic loss of this honor roll student proved that it doesn’t matter what college you go to, or how safe your campus is, suicide can happen anywhere at anytime, and that’s something that officers need to be alert to.
“To me, if there’s a position where they’d make a suicide attempt, there has to be some sort of mental illness that has to go along with it,” Kujawa said.
To date, there are no data statistics that focus specifically on college students and how suicide could potentially be a prominent issue. There are also no statistics that focus on college students and how mental illnesses are connected with suicides relating back to campuses.
Without this information, organizations and universities who are doing their best to avoid suicides of campus and care for the health of their students are losing out. Because after all, it doesn’t just affect the student who dies, it affects the person who finds them, whether that be a student, faculty member, or officer. With the lack of information surrounding suicides and college students, we are losing out on saving those who are in the prime of college pressures.
“We need to start dealing with this and being serious about it,” Kujawa said.
The more we put off this issue of student suicide the less likely campuses will be able to properly put together effective action plans for this type of tragedy. And no matter who you are, Kujawa reminds us that it affects anyone who is involved.
“Everytime something like that happens, I say it chips away at your soul,” Kujawa said. “A little bit of your soul.”
Campus safety officers play a vital role in protecting and serving their university’s community. Although there are resources available to students on campuses, they aren’t always taken advantage of, which can lead to attempted suicide.
Firefighters are another key component to protecting campuses within their designated community. Although they go through an extensive training program that focuses on fighting fires, medical training and community service training, firefighters are exposed to suicide training as well.
John Litchford, Deputy Chief, is a Milwaukee-based firefighter who has had first-hand experience with suicide on-duty and while off-duty.
“Part of our protocol is to use our spot awareness training, which prepares us for any type of run that we go on,” Litchford said.
The reason people call 911 is because they are at their worst and the role of the police officers and firefighters is to help them, not to point out what they have done wrong. That is the same for campus safety officers. The first step in the case of an emergency is to assess the situation and from there, use protocols and experiences to find a solution.
“What we do is we have a complex training of just de-escalation in nature. So we want all of our members to be trained to acknowledge and recognize a situation,” Litchford said. “Then be able to just make things get better.”
On campus, safety officers are often the first ones to respond to the scene once help is called, however off campus, police officers are usually the ones who make it to the scene first, then firefighters arrive, but this is not always the case.
“A lot of times when we get to these runs, it is already after the attempt has been made and we are recovery from what they have already done,” Litchford said. “There are occasions when we are first on scene but 90 percent of the time, we are second because the call is going to be made and then the cops are going to respond.”
Campus safety officers, firefighters, and police officers share a common goal of protecting those lives within their communities; however, there are boundaries that even they cannot break when presented with suicide. When a situation goes beyond their training, professional negotiators have to come in to ensure every effort is exhausted.
“They will then start negotiating and it is in our protocol to take a step back because they have negotiators who are specifically trained in the art of talking someone down,” Litchford said.
Call to Action
Mental illness is a condition that cannot go unnoticed any longer — especially on college campuses. Surveys are important for gathering data on campuses; however, what is done with that data is what really matters. Campus safety, police officers, and firefighters play a key role in protecting college students from physical harm. It’s time to start protecting those same students from any mental illness which can lead to suicide if untreated.
Written By: Bryanna Sanders and Lexie Kline