The first Higher Education Suicide Prevention Coalition Conference this week focused on ways students, faculty and journalists can improve their understanding of collegiate mental health as well as how they can raise awareness of this topic in a sensitive manner.
“My hope for the conference is that attendees get an opportunity to learn from folks that are doing some work already on campuses,” said Matthew Wintersteen, founder and director of the HESPC. Wintersteen is an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University, which hosted the conference.
The conference took a multifaceted approach to discussing collegiate mental health. HESPC hosted faculty and staff, students, mental health ambassadors, residential life staff and college journalists from 80 campuses across eight states.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students,” said Rosalyn Blogier, a public health adviser for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and presenter at the conference.
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Three different modules were hosted on the first day of the conference. These dealt with the state of mental health in higher education; emerging technologies for training, research and support; and analyses of on-campus campaigns at Temple University, Bloomsburg University and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
“The mission of the conference and the group as a whole is to create a forum for college campuses to have conversations about mental health, about suicide prevention and to generate ideas that have legs in their campus that they can do,” Wintersteen said.
For Rose Milani, the project coordinator for the HESPC, this event was more than a conference.
“My hope is that by talking about this, students are cared for. ... That they get the mental help that they need.”
Milani was involved in campus ministry for the University of Rhode Island for two and a half years and the University of Maine for six and a half years. During her time in Maine, Milani experienced the loss of a student to suicide.
“I did have a student die by suicide and we even asked her the week before if she had thought about suicide. That was really hard, but I think what was hardest was that no one in the university wanted to talk about it. So I always wondered, there’s got to be a better way,” Milani said.
On day two of the HESPC conference, attendees were split into groups to attend specialized modules. The modules involved training college students on how to engage students; faculty and its legal role in the state of Pennsylvania; and student journalists being given the chance to talk about reporting suicides with author Stephen Fried.
The conference was made possible with a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. Both Milani and Wintersteen have been involved with HESPC for two years and hope it will remain active for the next three years, the duration of the grant.
In addition, the Scattergood Foundation, a behavioral health fund, provided the necessary funds to give students in communications the training to feel confident about reporting on mental health disorders.
“What’s exciting to me is to see the way campuses are connected not just with each other, but with the different organizations,” Milani said.