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UI adopts web-based suicide-prevention program

BY NICK HASSETT | APRIL 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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On average, more than two students at the University of Iowa die in suicides every year.

It’s a number that those at the UI Counseling Service hope to reduce through a program that is gaining traction at colleges throughout the nation.

At-Risk, an interactive, online training simulation from developer Kognito, is designed to help students and faculty identify common indicators of psychological distress and how best to approach an at-risk student to refer to counseling. It is used at more than 100 campuses nationwide. Through a grant, the program is coming to the UI.

The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Suicide Prevention Grants Program funds a three-year project to expand suicide prevention networks on and off campus, increase communication between the UI and community partners, and develop new materials and trainings focused on high-risk groups.

“We’re trying to build a caring campus community network,” said Sam Cochran, the director of the University Counseling Service. “Rather than dwell on the negative, it’s about keeping a positive spin and mobilizing our efforts to make sure nobody slips through the cracks.”

The grant provides around $270,000 total over three years, which Cochran said is typical of such grants. The bulk of the money goes to staff costs and the At-Risk program.

“The two biggest categories are paying staff and the purchase of the Kognito program,” Cochran said. “It’s an expensive program, almost $30,000 a year. The other components [of the grant project] are modestly priced compared to it.”

The university began the pilot for the program in late March, extending invitations to undergraduate freshmen to begin with.  A week after the opening date, 43 students had signed up for the program.

“It’s really innovative the way Kognito delivered [suicide prevention training] through a web interface,” he said. “Students … can do it on their own time.”

The program uses “avatar-based learning,” in which users engage in conversations with emotionally responsive student avatars who exhibit signs of psychological distress. In the process, the program hopes to teach users to practice and learn how to use open-ended questions, reflective listening and other techniques.

Leah Wentworth, a graduate assistant with the suicide prevention program, said the university would carefully evaluate the program.

“It’s a common program, and we want to be able to make the case that it is effective or not,” she said. “We’re trying to see if behaviors change as a result of this training.”

The training takes around 30 minutes to complete, and the students will be contacted again in a month to see if any learned skills have been used.

Though the program trains students to look for indicators in a wide range of groups, Cochran said certain groups at universities were at higher risk for suicide.

“Research has identified elevated risk for graduate students, particularly in health and science fields,” he said. “Veterans … and GLBT populations we know for sure are at higher risk.”

Though the program’s administrators were confident in its value, some UI students had mixed views on the program.

“[In-person training] might be more effective, but I don’t see how it could hurt,” UI junior Jake Hopes said.

UI senior Seth Frederici was open to the idea.

“It could be beneficial, but each person is so individualistic,” he said.

Wentworth hopes it sparks a discussion on campus.

“Eleven hundred college students die by suicide every year,” she said. “That’s 1,100 opportunities for us to have that conversation to point us in the right direction.”


Correction:

In an earlier version of this story, The Daily Iowan incorrectly reported that 11,000 students die from suicide every year due to a typo on a third-party website. The actual number of students that die from suicide every year is nearly 1,100. The DI regrets the error.


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