Shaken By Student Suicides, University Of Wyoming Works Towards Prevention

Apr 17, 2015

ASUW presidential candidates pose with ‘Love Is Louder’ chalkboard in UW student union.
Credit Aaron Schrank

One week after the most recent death at UW, Animal Science Professor Dan Rule is in the Student Union with 20 others discussing symptoms of depression and warning signs for suicidal thinking. Rule says he’s here because he cares about his students.

“I don’t care if they’re an 18 or 19-year-old, or if they’re a 40-year-old non-traditional student or even if they’re a veteran,” says Rule. “They’re my kids when they’re in my room.”

This is a suicide prevention training called ‘Gatekeepers’ put on by UW’s Counseling Center. The University has put on trainings like this since 2006, but this is the first since two first-year students here died by suicide in a span of just 8 days.

Wyoming has had the highest suicide rate in the country in recent years. For young people, the rate here is twice the national average. Still, it’s not a subject that’s widely discussed—or understood. Efforts like this ‘Gatekeepers’ training hope to fix that.

The counselors tell participants to look for changes in students--in attendance, mood, even personal hygiene. Sharon Kubichek teaches developmental math at UW and Laramie County Community College, ans days it’s sometimes difficult to know if her students are just having a bad day or are in real trouble.

“Is their behavior changing radically in my class? Could there be something else going on besides just, ‘I don’t like math’—but something really serious?,” Kubichek says.

The trainers say participants should act on their intuitions—even when that means asking students the uncomfortable question: ‘are you suicidal?’

“It will be far worse to read about it later than to have them get mad at you or say that you’re being creepy,” Kubichek says.

There's a resistance to counseling here at Wyoming. I think it's part of our 'cowboy up' mentality. So we've to change this message to students and say, 'Counseling is healthy. You don't have to be labeled a crazy person to get therapy.' This is what you do to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Today’s training provides what’s essentially a rough script for how to approach these conversations. The goal is not to solve students’ problems—but to actively listen and empathize.

“It’s really hard to talk to someone about their depression, because we want to shy away from negative things,” says Susan Robison, a student working towards her teaching credential at UW. “So, having a way to talk to people about their depression and about their potentially suicidal thoughts is very important.”

The end goal is to get students to whatever professional help they might need. And Vice President for Student Affairs Sara Axelson says there’s a wide range of help available to students. 

“We just want to make sure that people know about the resources,” Axelson says. “We’ve got resources. We want to connect students with resources.”

Those resources include three different campus counseling programs—and several off-campus mental health providers that serve students. So far this school year, at least 44 students were referred to the inpatient behavioral health unit at Laramie’s Ivinson Memorial Hospital.

The University also has a ‘welfare check’ system in place. That’s when the Dean of Students or campus police department contacts a student—usually based on concerns brought by a professor, friend or parent. Axelson’s office says about 140 students got welfare checks this fall semester.

Dean of Students Sean Blackburn says there is at least one thing about these services that needs to improve—and that’s outreach.

“There’s a resistance to counseling here at Wyoming,” says Blackburn. “I think it’s part of our ‘cowboy up’ mentality. So we’ve to change this message to students and say, ‘Counseling is healthy. You don’t have to be labeled a crazy person to get therapy.’ This is what you do to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

After recent events, UW students are pushing positive messages of their own. Junior Randy Elledge was on the speech and debate team at Jackson Hole High School with the second student who died at UW. Elledge is also running for student body president—and the night his former teammate died, he and his political rival senior Brian Schueler decided to work together on an interactive display based on a national suicide prevention campaign.

“It was the trigger that motivated Brian and I to seek one another out and to put this into action,” says Elledge. “This hit us hard, and we’re in a unique position to make an impact here.”

That national campaign is called ‘Love is Louder,’ and the pair put a giant chalkboard in the center of campus, inviting passersby to complete that phrase. Students scribbled messages like “Love is Louder than depression” or “discrimination” or “your grades.”

Schueler says, in recent days, he’s noticed students are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide.

“It’s like a touchy subject, it’s one of those, you know, bad words that you don’t talk about,” says Schueler. “There are aspects of being sensitive, and there are also aspects of things that need to be addressed. And I feel that there are sometimes when we get too sensitive and forget to address important issues.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. Meanwhile, surveys show that Wyomingites still have widespread misconceptions about suicide and related mental health issues. That stigma, public health officials say, is the challenge students and administrators must overcome to get help to those who need it. 

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.