Breaking the silence surrounding suicide
There are days when Liz Campbell hides in the back room of the building where she works in Scottsdale, Ariz., when she can’t handle being out on the floor. On those days, the thoughts of her daughter’s suicide overwhelm her and force her to take a few minutes to collect herself.
“I’m not sure that you ever really heal from it. You just simply learn not to let it dominate your life,” Liz Campbell said. “It will never go away.”
When her daughter Caitlin Campbell chose to attend the UA in 2010, she went without her close-knit group of friends, who were heading off to Arizona State University. She made a new group of friends in Tucson and was involved in a theater group. However, about two years after she arrived, a friend at the university killed herself.
Less than a year later, Caitlin Campbell walked into the desert and took her own life.
Of the 18 reported student deaths in 2012, four of them were suicides, according to the Dean of Students Office. In 2013 the number decreased, with two suicides out of 15 reported student deaths.
While the Dean of Students Office tries to track the cause of death for all students, sometimes families do not wish to disclose or there is a lack of information, said Kendal Washington White, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, which could mean the number of suicides is higher.
When the Dean of Students Office is notified of a student’s death, staff will try to learn as much about the student as possible and notify key individuals and departments, such as instructors,
Residence Life and the necessary academic departments.
Staff will also work with Counseling and Psychological Services to provide support to peers of the deceased student and will contact parents of the student to offer support with administrative issues, such as packing and moving items out of a residence hall and closing out the student’s records.
The office also conducts follow-up with those impacted to provide continued support, White said.
“We try to do as much as we can to support the family members of the deceased student, but also to provide support for the university community,” White said.
When Caitlin Campbell killed herself in January 2013, Liz Campbell said her family was assigned an advocate who collected her daughter’s records. The advocate also went to each of her professors to inform them of what had happened.
The school also reached out to Caitlin Campbell’s younger sister, Kiri Campbell, a freshman at the time, to let her know she could take the semester off from classes if she needed to.
“The people at the U of A were fabulous,” Liz Campbell said. “It was incredibly well orchestrated and made it so easy for us. They were really very good and just very kind and understanding.”
White said the most important goal of the Dean of Students Office is to provide students with help.
The office allows for campus members to report concerns about a student with a phone call or via an online form on its website. From there, staff can reach out to the student in question either over email or on the phone to provide support.
“Being part of a community means we watch out for each other and care for each other,” White said. “It doesn’t matter what your role is on campus — if you see something, say something.”
Liz Campbell said she wasn’t sure what the outcome would have been if her daughter had received more intervention and outreach efforts.
“I just don’t know if that would have had an impact on her or not,” Liz Campbell said. “But if it only impacts one student, I would be good with that.”
Suicide prevention outreach
At the UA, there are a wide variety of suicide prevention efforts, including media campaigns and communication training for students, staff and faculty, as well as programs to help students de-stress.
The Question, Persuade, Refer training provides background on college students and suicides and includes interactive role playing where participants can practice what they’ve learned. Since 2009, about 1,000 students, staff and faculty have been trained through the program.
“Through this training, we’re not trying to ask people to be mental health clinicians,” said David Salafsky, director of Health Promotion and Preventive Services. “We’re just asking people to be curious about getting the skills so that they can raise these issues, and how to communicate effectively to try and get someone help.”
In addition to the training, students can also seek help through CAPS, which provides treatment for anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, family problems and other issues.
“We care about this. … Suicide is a highly preventable problem,” director of CAPS Marian Binder said. “Most of the time people do not want to die, they are just looking for a way out of a painful problem. If we give them hope, we can help them see other alternatives.”
Before Caitlin Campbell came to the UA, she had seen a psychologist, psychiatrist and counselors and tried acupuncture and a holistic approach. Liz Campbell said her daughter was open to trying these things because she knew “there was something off.”
Liz Campbell said that although Caitlin Campbell visited counselors in Tucson, she did not seek out any help at the university, which she believes was because her daughter wanted to be known for her academics and not for having mental health issues.
Salafsky said one of the most significant issues Campus Health Service staff is facing is trying to help students who don’t want to be connected with mental health issues.
“I think things have gotten better with reducing the stigma around mental health and health seeking, but we still have a ways to go,” he said. “We still know that stigma exists and it prevents people who … need help from reaching out and coming to that first counseling appointment.”
Reaching out to classmates
Liz Campbell said she believes prevention efforts can help students feel more supported and more comfortable talking about suicide without fear of recrimination. She added that helping teach students how to recognize and properly address depression is vital.
“I think, personally, it’s important to train kids to see the signs of distress,” Liz Campbell said. “Had some of her friends been able to see the symptoms, I think they might have had more impact than professionals. They might have been able to provide a better support, or alert someone … to step in and help.”
Liz Campbell said students should ensure that their friends know they’re there to support them and that they have time for them. She said while at the UA, her daughter missed her group of friends from high school.
Although she recognizes suicide is a difficult topic, Liz Campbell said, it is necessary to discuss it.
“People don’t like to acknowledge it because it’s so awful. The thought of somebody actually being at the point that they would take their own life is horrible,” she said. “It’s a really fearful topic.”
Salafsky said there is a widely spread myth that discussing suicide will plant the idea of committing the act in someone’s head. However, he said, the opposite has proven to be true.
“It’s the silence that really can be the most devastating,” Salafsky said.
Pushing students to ask the difficult question of whether a friend is considering suicide is the main purpose of QPR training, Salafsky said. Because suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses, he said, it’s important for more people to get involved in combatting the problem.
“I think it comes down to the fact that this is a really big issue and there’s no way to have enough counseling staff here to identify all the students who need help,” Salafsky said, “and really we know that the most likely people to notice when somebody needs help would be a friend or a coworker or a classmate.”
Last month, the UA was recognized with a JedCampus seal of distinction, from the nonprofit organization Jed Foundation, which is given to colleges with comprehensive programming on the topic of mental health.
The Jed Foundation, founded in 2000, was created by Donna and Phil Satow after their son Jed Satow, a UA student, committed suicide.
Salafsky said the seal is a good indication of what Campus Health Service is trying to move toward and that staff is committed to addressing these issues. This is the last year of a three-year suicide prevention grant received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and totaling $306,000, but Salafsky said staff has partnered with the UA and Tucson community to explore how to sustain programs created through the grant.
Campus Health Service will seek another federal grant down the road, but for now, Salafsky said, staff will work with the community to promote services provided for those struggling with mental health issues.
Liz Campbell said outreach and suicide prevention efforts could mean the difference between life and death.
“To have that in your arsenal, where you can talk to someone and recognize it, you could in fact help save their life,” Liz Campbell said. “I know their family would be grateful.”
— Katya Mendoza contributed reporting to this article.