About 1,100 college students committed suicide this past year.
To remember each victim there is a small black flag planted in the ground at East Tennessee State University’s amphitheater, part of the school’s observance of National Suicide Prevention Week this week. Thursday is National Mental Health Day and Saturday is the international day for recognizing and preventing suicide.
This is the second year the school has organized a week of activities for the prevention of suicide and to help remove the stigma often associated with mental illness, said Jameson Hirsch, an assistant professor of psychology.
“My thing that I’m most interested in is protective characteristics,” Hirsch said. That is the avenues available to help people cope with situations or feelings that could lead to mental distress and possibly suicide.
While college students do die by suicide, some research indicates college students are actually at less risk for committing suicide than other populations because they typically have many resources in place to seek counseling or help.
At ETSU many resources are available to troubled students, including a campus counseling center, behavioral health and wellness clinics, a military veterans center and other things.
Hirsch said college students have a high level of stressors that can contribute to mental distress, including pressure from studies and peers, financial strains, being homesick and adjusting to life as an adult.
“All those are risk factors for suicide,” Hirsch said.
ETSU has had very few students to commit suicide, but the stressors exist at the school just like at other colleges. Hirsch said recently the school’s counseling center has seen an increase in the number of students utilizing services there.
“Everything that we do is drumming down the number of students who have suicidal thoughts but also drumming up the number of students who seek counseling services,” Hirsch said.
The ETSU PEAKS (Prevention through Education, Awareness and Knowledge of Suicide) group, of which Hirsch is the director, will be assisting in the week’s activities. PEAKS was established through a grant funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
The week’s activities include a one-man play by Michael Mack, who advocates for those suffering from mental illness in an attempt to reduce the stigma associated with the condition. PEAKS members will be handing out “coping kits” from a table set up in the school’s student center. The kits include several items, including brochures and a list of agencies that can assist mentally distressed people.
Alisha Foster, a second-year graduate student in clinical psychology and member of PEAKS, was handing out information about suicide and mental health near the amphitheater Tuesday. She said many campus organizations are participating throughout the week to help those with mental health issues.
“We are all gathering together trying to build awareness of suicide prevention and education,” Foster said.
On Thursday, the school will host an event promoting mental health. Many games, prizes and food will be available for people.
“We’re just trying to make it an inviting environment in which we can be able to educate not only students but also maybe faculty and other leadership individuals on campus,” Foster said.