A suicidologist will visit campus Thursday to hold a session about mental health awareness, as student leaders continue to call for more attention to suicide and mental health issues.
Suicidologist David Jobes will give students information about youth suicide and how to ask for help, following a session he held for faculty last week about the role they can play. His presentations follow more than a year of increased focus on campus mental health issues.
The presentations come after three student suicides on the Mount Vernon Campus last spring and an attempted suicide this fall. Following those incidents, top administrators promised not to spare any resources in prioritizing mental health on campus. Counseling became a permanent service on the Mount Vernon Campus this fall.
“We’re not a campus afraid,” Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said in an interview. “We’re not a campus immune from tragedy, but we’re also not a campus afraid to talk about challenges and ways we support each other. It’s a sign of a strong community.”
Konwerski said he has seen a “tremendous” response from students who have prioritized mental health over the past several years, lobbying for more clinicians and lower fees. Over the spring and summer, Konwerski said student leaders called for discussions of mental health to be held “in a public way.”
When Jobes offered to host a session on campus, Konwerski said officials “jumped at the opportunity.”
“It seemed like the perfect nexus of the right person talking. Students say, ‘We want to reduce stigma.’ One way to do that is to bring mental health out of the shadows,” Konwerski said.
GW has made mental health a larger priority over the last several years. Officials waived the fee for the first six sessions at the counseling center three years ago following intense student lobbying. In August 2013, a $150,000 budget increase allowed GW to hire two new counselors focused on veterans and international students.
In the presentations, Jobes shares facts to eliminate “misinformation” about suicides on college campuses. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 18 to 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“There’s a misimpression that we have a national epidemic of youth suicides,” Jobes said.
Jobes, who has studied suicide for nearly 40 years and is the director of Catholic University’s suicide prevention lab, said part of his focus is on the “protective” nature of college campuses, which he said can help prevent suicide and offer a supportive environment.
“You have an environment where there are lots of eyes on students,” Jobes said. “You have faculty, staff and if you’re in a residence hall you have resident advisers as well as resources like the health center.”
Jobes said his presentation Thursday will include about an hour-long Q&A session for students. He said he hopes to discuss the implementation of a peer-support hotline, which, once it launches, will give students an outlet to discuss problems or seek advice.
This month, University President Steven Knapp backed that program, which is a key goal of the Student Association. Jobes’ visit also follows the opening of Student Health Service and the University Counseling Center in its on-campus location.
A group of students and officials are spending the next several months deciding the details of implementing that program, like how to train student volunteers.
“I feel strongly it has to be done in a proper way,” Jobes said. “It should be done properly with appropriate supervision and qualified training and support.”
At last week’s faculty session, which was closed to the media, Jobes said he talked about the roles professors can play in opening up conversations about mental health and helping students who approach them.
“As a professor myself, there are students that trust me. They feel comfortable coming to me. They may feel differently or wary of going to the counseling center,” Jobes said. “My idea is to advocate for people being supportive and thoughtful and also that there are resources and expertise on campus.”
Danielle Lico, an associate dean of students, said Jobes’ presentation was helpful because it reminded faculty and staff to “stay in their lane” when it comes to supporting students and to not be afraid to make a referral if necessary.
“Sometimes, the most well-intentioned people focus on the short term without understanding the potential consequences that can occur downstream that may be counterproductive or even harmful to the very people they are trying to support,” Lico said.”
Sylvia Marotta-Walters, a counseling professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development who attended the meeting with faculty, said faculty can help create environments for students to feel safe enough to talk about mental health.
“Mental disorders can lead to isolation, which only exacerbates symptoms,” Marotta-Walters said. “When we discuss mental issues, they are demystified and for those who are affected directly, it helps them feel connected to society.”
Marotta-Walters, who is a licensed psychologist, said her responsibility in responding to a student who approaches her may be different than the role of a faculty member who has no training.
But faculty can still connect students to resources and “support for someone who might be vulnerable,” she said.
“It’s more about being present than it is about knowing what to say even for a short office hour connection,” Marotta-Walters said.