The University will increase its suicide prevention efforts after receiving a $74,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. GW will focus on a student outreach initiative and train community facilitators to recognize suicidal symptoms.
GW is one of 22 schools nationwide to receive a Campus Suicide Prevention Grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. GW will get about $74,000 per year for three years.
Between 2003 and 2004, three GW students committed suicide, and an estimated 1,088 students did so nationwide. Diane DePalma, University Counseling Center director and manager of the federal funds, said those deaths contributed to the school’s decision to apply for the grant.
“Yes, we have had a history of this happening here, but this is something that has happened across the country,” she said. “Even if students did not die on this campus, we would still be concered about this.”
DePalma said she hopes that with an aggressive advertising campaign, improved training and an after-hours talk line staffed by master’s degree-level counselors, students will be less likely to fall through the cracks.
“The goal is to reach out,” she said. “The more students, faculty and staff know the resources, the better we have a chance in stepping in early and helping someone in distress.”
The Counseling Center will partner with GW’s Suicide Prevention Action Network and the Student Association for many of these activities and provide training for community facilitators as well as professors in a seminar setting, teaching them to recognize symptoms, respond to them and refer students to the center.
“I see this as not just a counseling service grant but a grant for the entire George Washington community,” DePalma said. “We want to create a student body that is aware and knows how to help.”
The Counseling Center moved from its location next to Lisner Hall to a non-descript office at 2033 K St. near campus in 1996. Past the receptionist area lies a long hallway dotted with white electronic boxes, humming along.
“Those are our noise-canceling devices,” DePalma said. “We use them to protect anonymity. If you stand in the middle of this hallway, you can’t even hear what’s being said in the room next to us.”
Protecting anonymity is essential to the operation of the Counseling Center, DePalma said. Like many counseling services, the center often grapples with students’ stigmas toward therapy. She said part of the grant money would be used toward outreach activities in the hopes of eliminating those stigmas.
Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, said the grant would be used to supplement the University’s resources and help maintain a supportive and knowledgeable community.
“Too many of our students have experience with depression or suicidal behaviors – either personally or among friends and colleagues,” he said in a news release Friday. “While we may not still be able to reach everyone in need, we now have more help in trying to make a difference.”
According to SAMHSA, the program that provided the grant, 21.4 million adults age 18 or older suffer from serious mental problems. Rates are highest among people 18 to 25 years old.
But experts said that mental health issues have become a sensitive subject for universities to monitor. Last year New York University learned that lesson the hard way when it attempted to include questions about students’ mental disorders in their standard health forms.
Civil rights activists cried foul and the line between saving lives and rights to privacy was hotly debated. GW does not inquire into students’ mental health histories when students enroll; only an immunization form is required.
In New York magazine, Madellyn Gould, an epidemiologist from Colombia University who specializes in suicide epidemics, was quoted as saying that the spate of suicides at New York University and other schools could be attributed to “suicide contagion.”
“Social behavior is contagious and influential,” Gould said in the article. “We wouldn’t have a billion-dollar advertising market in this country if people didn’t think you could influence someone else’s behavior.”
Whether the three suicides at GW could be attributed to a trend is just one of many theories that the Counseling Center has overheard. Regardless, the Counseling Center hopes the new grant will help to put things in perspective and provide an even larger safety net for students who are at risk.
The Campus Suicide Prevention Grant was created by an act of Congress in 2004 and was sponsored by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), whose son committed suicide. The act created SAMHSA, a program to develop suicide prevention efforts at the state and local level and on college campuses. The bill authorized $82 million in funding over three years for suicide prevention. GW, along with Howard University and Johns Hopkins University, are the only the D.C.-Baltimore area schools receiving the grant.