Expert on student depression to retire

by Sarah McKenzie

Some University students have credited Ralph Rickgarn with saving their lives.
Perhaps it’s a generous accreditation, but considering Rickgarn has led efforts to help students struggling with depression for the past two decades, their words of appreciation may not necessarily be overstated.
Rickgarn first immersed himself in student issues in 1957 as an undergraduate in political science and Russian studies at the University. He also worked as a resident assistant at Frontier Hall.
More than 40 years and several degrees later, Rickgarn, who presided over housing issues as coordinator of student behavior, has decided to retire this month.
However, retirement for the 65-year-old does not mean he will surrender to a life of solitude or inactivity, Rickgarn said.
“I am not going to go away and mold,” he quipped.
Instead, the former administrator has plans to teach courses at Normandale Community College for one year. He will instruct classes on the psychology of death.
Since earning a degree in suicideology in 1984, Rickgarn has published several articles on student depression and other issues related to death. After authoring and printing 50,000 copies of a student depression booklet in 1996, Rickgarn said he often receives calls from students who wrestle with issues of self-doubt.
“I ask them if they have thought about (suicide),” he said. “Sometimes their voices trail off; usually they say yes.”
After that first phone call, Rickgarn makes arrangements to meet with the students. Following the counseling sessions, some agree to a period of hospitalization. Others decide to take medication or pursue different avenues of therapy.
For the past several years, Rickgarn has kept track of the number of suicides on campus. Between three and eight University students commit suicide annually, he said.
Rickgarn noted that perfectionists and other students under tremendous financial and academic pressure are most likely to entertain suicidal thoughts.
“Many students are involved in both academics and work,” he said. “They have huge financial considerations and, in reality, their physical and mental health is the last consideration.”
Rickgarn said he has tried to help some of those students alleviate overwhelming pressures.
He added that it can be difficult to pick up their cries for help at a large university. His guide on student suicide has been an effective mechanism for reaching out to those afflicted with depression, he said.
“Students who have read it have come up to me and said, ‘I found myself on page 50,'” Rickgarn said. “It has made an impact.”
Beyond writing literature on death and suicide, the former administrator was active in organizing a University response team to work with students, staff and faculty members grieving the loss of loved ones. The support network is comprised of campus psychiatrists, ministers, administrators and other health professionals.
Rodney Loper, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, attributed much of the success of University outreach programs to Rickgarn.
“Leadership at the University is expected to come from the higher administration and faculty,” he said. “It is awkward sometimes when leadership on key issues come from a person in the professional ranks as it did with Ralph.”
“His leadership in the area of suicide awareness and death education and support has made the University a better community.”