Focused, coordinated approach key to preventing student suicides


World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10 honors the lives lost to suicide and those touched by these deaths, and highlights the need for better suicide prevention and help for those left in its tragic wake.

Suicide death and suicidal thinking and behavior are problems on Kentucky college campuses. For a growing number of young adults, the mounting pressures of college can lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

In a recent nationwide survey, nearly 31 percent of college students had seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives, compared to only 25 percent five years prior. Death by suicide is a serious public-health issue that has increased by 24 percent over the last 15 years in the United States, with more than 42,000 people dying by suicide each year.

Eastern Kentucky University has responded to the mandate to do better. A collaborative of academic departments and centers, led by the Department of Psychology, has worked tirelessly to secure federal funding for campus suicide prevention.

This summer, EKU was awarded a federal Garrett Lee Smith campus suicide-prevention grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This three-year, $300,000 project will allow EKU to develop and evaluate suicide-prevention efforts on campus and institutionalize suicide prevention-specific training for undergraduate and graduate training programs.

The Clinical Psychology doctoral program has already imbedded a suicide-focused assessment, intervention and treatment class in its curriculum. Other professional training programs that work closely with suicidal individuals need training as well, and this grant is targeting those.

Other forward-thinking efforts are being led by EKU’s new Counseling Center director, Melissa Bartsch, who has initiated Question, Persuade and Refer suicide-prevention gatekeeper trainings. A master QPR trainer herself, Bartsch’s vision is to train all EKU faculty and staff how to identify and assist individuals at risk for suicide.

Public-health experts suggest that the key to lowering the suicide rate is prevention, including educating the public about recognizing suicidal behavior and improving resources for those who are at risk. Educating the public is important, but there must be competent providers of care to treat suicidal individuals.

Kentucky has been at the forefront of mandating training for its behavioral-health providers, requiring a number of licensed providers to take six hours of additional training in suicide assessment and treatment as a requirement of license renewal.

Research demonstrates that 75 percent of individuals who died by suicide had contact with primary-care providers within one year of their deaths and 45 percent had contact with primary-care providers within one month. Older adults had higher rates of contact with primary-care providers within one month of suicide than did younger adults.

A recent Florida Supreme Court decision highlights the urgency of improvements of standard of care among primary-care physicians who treat depressed patients with antidepressants and neglect to ask them about their suicidal thoughts and feelings. A legal case against a Florida physician moved forward because it was successfully argued that this practice creates a “zone of risk” for suicidal patients.

The major accrediting body for hospitals in the U.S., The Joint Commission, has implored hospitals and professionals to do a better job assessing suicidal patients, as well as managing and treating them.

Recent research shows the over-reliance on medication and hospitalization for suicide risk and the lack of use of available suicide-focused treatments. One of the commission’s recommended treatments, the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality, is imbedded in the EKU Clinical Psychology doctoral program curriculum and is now being offered through the EKU Psychology Clinic.

The clinic also offers services for those impacted by suicide death. Research from the University of Kentucky demonstrates that those who are impacted by another’s suicide death have higher depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, which may place them at risk for their own suicidal behavior.

While World Suicide Prevention Day highlights the challenges of preventing suicide and attending to the needs of those impacted by such deaths, it also offers us new hope that efforts and resources are being provided to improve the lives and well-being of all Kentuckians.

Melinda Moore is an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University and a licensed psychologist in Lexington.