Suicide prevention training stepped up at Vermont colleges

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Suicide Prevention Resource and Training Center (VSPRTC), established by the Brattleboro-based Center for Health and Learning, is working with 13 institutions of higher education in Vermont this year to offer Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper training on campuses throughout the state.

A strong focus of the work of the VSPRTC and the higher education programming is to create “health promoting communities” in which people of all ages have the knowledge, attitude, skills and resources to not only reduce the risk of suicide, but also promote mental health and wellness overall.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, over 90 percent of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death. Efforts to support mental health and encourage help-seeking in the early stages of mental distress can make great strides in the overall prevention of suicide.

The Center for Health and Learning has received two consecutive federal grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to promote suicide prevention and mental health care in Vermont.

Statistics indicate that varying segments of the population have different established levels of risk for suicidal ideation - having thoughts of suicide - and behavior.

The college years present a window of higher risk, particularly for young men. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 15 to 19 and 20 to 24, and self-inflicted injury is the highest incidence category for hospital admissions for both age groups.

Young men aged 18 to 29 represent one of the highest generational cohorts of suicide death in Vermont, outranked only by those between the ages of 40-49 and 50-59. Men between 18 and 29 are six times more likely to die by suicide than women of the same age cohort, the figures show.

This is not to understate the risks for young women. Although death by suicide does occur more frequently in the male population, young women represent much higher rates of identification of suicidal ideation and referral to treatment.

This underscores that both women and men are at risk, but that catching early signs of mental distress can be more difficult in young men, VSPRTC says.

The years preceding and during college can bring high stress for both men and women – financial, academic, and social - and the availability of substances such as alcohol and other drugs often increases.

Recent high-profile deaths by suicide also indicate that bullying is not a phenomenon restricted to elementary and high school. Many forms of harassment continue into the college years, often targeting minority populations based on factors such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Colleges and universities can provide many resources to promote positive mental health, coping, and socializing skills. Many institutions in Vermont offer onsite counseling, support groups, and facilitate new students integrating with the school community.

Specific training in comprehensive, targeted interventions can increase the reach of these programs, and produce a broader range of adults on campus aware of potential risk factors, warning signs, and support strategies for students.

These trainings are referred to as Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper trainings, emphasizing the roles all surrounding adults can play in opening the gates of support and services for students who may experience significant barriers to asking for help.

Mental health struggles are still stigmatized in society, and students experiencing depression or other difficulties may fear identifying themselves. De-stigmatizing mental health difficulties and help-seeking are critical in promoting good mental health for all.

In addition to the on-campus trainings, the Vermont Suicide Prevention Resource and Training Center will also organize a statewide Suicide Prevention College Symposium, offering colleges and universities the opportunity to send representatives to learn and share information and resources with other schools.

Representatives of Vermont colleges are participating in an Institutions of Higher Education Work Group with the VSPRTC, to further the reach into campuses and student populations.

Trainings will be conducted by the Center for Health and Learning, a nonprofit working to build healthy communities throughout the state, through educational resources, leadership training, policy development, and technical assistance.

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