Guest opinion: Suicide prevention is everyone's business


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I commend The Daily Iowan for printing Nick Hassett’s brave column “Two Ways to Stop Suicide.” I am sorry for Nick’s loss of his high-school friend, whose life was snuffed out too young, who will no longer light up a room with his smile, who was so full of life. Yes, suicide in America, and in Iowa, is a public-health crisis that sometimes appears to defy efforts at prevention. But Nick does raise a good question about whether anything could have been done to save his friend. Can anything be done to save the lives of the 1,100 other college and university students who will commit suicide this year?

I believe the answer to this question is yes. There are things that all of us can do to prepare ourselves to reach out and assist someone who may be showing signs of distress. The key is to reach out and help before a person spirals down into the despair and hopelessness that so often leads to the erroneous conclusion that suicide is the best solution to what is almost always a temporary set of circumstances that, with assistance, can be managed and overcome. 

Here at the University of Iowa, I have had the privilege of directing a nationally funded grant for the past year that is geared precisely toward preventing such deaths in our community. While we know that approximately 20 percent of persons who commit suicide give no clue as to their intentions, the other 80 percent are known to have made their suffering, distress, and intentions known to others. Our grant is designed to equip gatekeepers on our campus — faculty, staff, and students — with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to know what to do if and when they might encounter someone who is showing signs of distress and possibly indicating that they might be at risk for committing suicide.

This suicide prevention grant funds an advisory committee to coordinate efforts to raise awareness of this important issue here on our campus and in our community, produce, and distribute culturally sensitive educational materials for at-risk populations, and provide training opportunities for all on campus to learn the warning signs of suicide and acquire the skills and confidence to reach out and connect with someone who is showing signs of distress and possibly communicating suicidal thinking or behavior.  

On April 22, the grant advisory committee will sponsor the “Send Silence Packing” college-student suicide-awareness exhibit. This traveling exhibit, provided by the national office of Active Minds, displays 1,100 backpacks that represent the number of young persons of college age who have ended their lives in the past year. The exhibit will be located on the west lawn of the Pentacrest between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.. Advisory committee members, grant staff, Active Minds volunteers, and Johnson County Crisis Center volunteers will be on hand.

Please stop by and take part in this important event and learn more about how you can join in the effort to make our campus a truly caring and compassionate campus where no student need feel so isolated, hopeless, or afraid of the future that the only option seems to be to take his or her life.  If, through participation in trainings offered through the auspices of our grant, just one person gains the skills and confidence to reach out and connect someone with the help he or she might need, then we will have succeeded in saving a life.

Sam V. Cochran, Ph.D.
director, University Counseling Service

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