Student suicide tracking shows promise in prevention

Though tracking suicide numbers bolsters support for suicide prevention and outreach, it isn’t a standard practice across most universities.

Gila Grad, a student studying gender and womens studies, religious studies, and Jewish studies, poses for a portrait on a bridge on the East Bank campus on Sunday, Dec. 9. Grad survived a suicide attempt over a year ago.

Tony Saunders

Gila Grad, a student studying gender and women’s studies, religious studies, and Jewish studies, poses for a portrait on a bridge on the East Bank campus on Sunday, Dec. 9. Grad survived a suicide attempt over a year ago.

by Helen Sabrowsky and J.D. Duggan

In August, Gila Grad marked one year since surviving a suicide attempt when she jumped from a bridge in Minneapolis.

On the anniversary, she gathered friends for a party to celebrate her survival. During the party, she discussed how mental illness can affect anyone — advocating for open discussion and destigmatization.

Grad currently studies gender and women’s studies, religious studies and Jewish studies as a part-time student at the University of Minnesota. She’s an advocate for accessibility to resources because she said mental illness can impact anyone.

“I think that if we want to get to a place where people are open to talking about difficult subjects, [we need] to just start talking about difficult subjects,” said Grad. “Depression, anxiety — any mental illness is not bound by anything.”

Young adult mental health, a budding field in psychology, is a growing focus throughout the country. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age students. On campus, suicide accounted for over one-fourth of student deaths, according to the most recently available University report. The report, which was released in 2016, included suicide data from the half-decade leading up to the report’s release. To address the complex and nuanced issue, some researchers have turned to tracking data on suicides — something they say is necessary on college campuses.

A 2016 report from the University of Minnesota’s Provost Committee on Student Mental Health found that there were 18 student deaths by suicide in the preceding half-decade. Although suicide numbers on campus have not seen a sharp increase, mental health crisis interventions — urgent situations that could pose a threat to individuals — are increasing, University of Minnesota Police Department Chief Matt Clark said.

UMPD documented 93 mental health interventions between 2015 and 2016, which is around a 43 percent increase from the same period two years prior.

The department uses data on the number of crisis interventions to justify funding for training and community outreach programs. But Clark said tracking the number of intervention calls can be difficult.

“When we respond, it might not be that it’s a crisis intervention situation initially, but we find out that’s actually the case,” Clark said.

The role of data in suicide prevention

By tracking student suicides, experts say universities can direct outreach to more vulnerable students and communities. But suicide tracking is not a standard procedure for many college campuses.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that more than half of the largest public universities in the country don’t track student suicide rates or have inconsistent tracking methods. The University of Minnesota tracks the number of student suicides by academic year.

University clinic Boynton Health is notified of all student deaths and tracks them on a regular basis, said Matt Hanson, assistant director of Boynton Health’s mental health clinic.

Suicide tracking, though challenging, could allow colleges to find trends about certain populations that may require additional outreach and servicing, said Nance Roy, chief clinical officer of The Jed Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to emotional health and suicide prevention among young adults.

In response to public data requests from the Minnesota Daily, a host of other Big Ten universities provided unclear numbers on student suicides and tracking methods.

In the 2017 Healthy Minds Study, nearly 8 percent of University of Minnesota respondents said they experienced suicidal ideation in the past year. This is slightly lower than the 2017 national rate: 11 percent of about 54,000 respondents across 54 campuses.

Roy said few colleges have a uniform tracking method, but many schools are realizing the need for a centralized reporting system to learn about trends of deaths by suicide. Tracking gives experts and resource providers a statistical analysis of the need for services beyond anecdotal or qualitative evidence. In research, data tracking and statistical analysis work alongside self-reported symptoms and diagnoses.

Diane Houle, mother of Jennifer Houle, a University student who died by suicide in 2015, said her daughter was a perfectionist, but that she was a generally happy and outgoing person — not someone that others expected to take their life. But mental illness is indiscriminate, she said.

“We all have that ill-conceived idea about people who suffer from depression or who might die by suicide that … you can maybe pick them out of a group … but that is so not the way it is,” Houle said.

Jennifer’s parents created a scholarship in partnership with the Carlson School of Management in Houle’s name for students who “demonstrate academic merit and leadership aptitude,” qualities shared by Jennifer.

The Minnesota Department of Health uses data on suicides and mental health to identify factors and groups prone to suicide, said Melissa Heinen, a MNDOH epidemiologist.

Heinen said MNDOH uses data to inform and drive prevention initiatives, focusing on communities or areas with higher suicide rates than others. The MNDOH may partner with local health care providers and community partners to increase outreach and change the discussion in these areas.

Gregg Henriques, a professor of graduate psychology at James Madison University, attributes an increase in demands for psychological services to the combination of three things: a shift in the cultural attitude toward mental health that has resulted in more people seeking treatment and discussing it; an actual increase in the number of individuals who have a mental health issue, disease, behaviors and diagnoses; and changing definitions of mental health diseases.

Heinen said that ultimately, prevention happens on a much smaller scale.

“Prevention is local,” she said. “It’s in families and communities and relations.”

Overcoming longtime barriers

Many experts and individuals affected by suicide feel that awareness and open discussion can shift the paradigm — after decades of stigma and less-accessible resources.

“This is a thing that anybody could have, and it could happen to anyone,” said Grad, remembering her own experience following a suicide attempt. “What matters is the access to resources that you have.”

Hanson, of Boynton Health, said the mental health fields regarding children and college students are rapidly changing, and diagnoses are happening at a younger age. He said the stigma of open conversation is also changing.

“We’ve made strong strides in terms of reducing the stigma around mental health issues, but there is still a stigma,” Hanson said.

Nancy Christensen, mother of University student Drew Christensen, who died by suicide in 2016, said her son’s mental illness wasn’t publicly discussed.

“When Drew was diagnosed in 2014 with bipolar … we didn’t talk much about it. Because, you know, it’s a really it’s a private thing and, certainly, he didn’t want to talk about it with his friends or his family,” she said. “I didn’t want people to judge him.”

The University’s 2017 Healthy Minds study notes that approximately 36 percent of respondents believe others would “think less” of someone who received mental health treatment. Alternatively, only 4 percent of respondents said they would “think less” of somebody who received mental health treatment.

Nancy Christensen said Drew Christensen loved the University. He was on the University handball team and he was a passionate advocate for mental health on campus. He died shortly after graduating with a degree in chemistry.

“Just try to let people talk about it, and I think that, quite frankly, for students at the U and staff at the U, it’s just all about talking about it,” Christensen said. “To just let students know that it’s okay and there’s help out there.”

Christensen said she and her husband are now involved in various programs, including the Make It OK campaign, which aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

Sravani Sadineni, director of the Minnesota Student Association’s health and wellness committee, said the new MSA campaign “Listen” aims to destigmatize mental illness through sharing personal stories about mental health, while increasing the accessibility of University mental health resources through the creation of a resource guide.

Sadineni added the guide may prove especially helpful to those already struggling with mental health, but stressed that preventative care is also crucial to an individual’s wellbeing.

“It’s not just a campus issue — it’s a structural issue, beyond just the University of Minnesota campus,” Sadineni said. “If we weren’t in college … we wouldn’t have the access to resources we do now.”

Houle said it can take individuals a long time to reach out for help, and that there are other challenges besides stigma.

“I think a lot also has to do with … how do you know that what you’re experiencing, what you’re feeling, is not the same thing everybody else is,” Houle said.

While the University is successful in providing mental health resources and support, Sadineni said the issue of mental health is complex.

“But I think people are starting to see that it doesn’t have to be crisis mode … to start seeking out help,” Sadineni said.

In order to recover, Grad was hospitalized for a number of weeks. She now speaks freely about mental illness.

Grad said mental illness education is crucial for suicide prevention, adding that she hopes to see a support group established for suicide survivors at the University.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.