Last week, USC suicide prevention services coordinator Jennifer Myers issued an email invitation to 873 USC sophomores urging them to take part in an interactive screening test designed to detect heightened levels of stress, depression or suicidal thoughts.
“We know that college can be a challenging and at times stressful time. Your mental health and well-being are important to us,” the email blast from Toby R. Lovell, assistant director of community-based services for USC’s Counseling & Human Development Center, read.
Within 24 hours, 40 students had signed up to take the USC Stress and Depression Questionnaire, an interactive tool that allows the student to answer questions anonymously, then engage in dialogue with a USC counselor via email, Myers said.
Also within 24 hours, 10 of those students scheduled appointments to meet face-to-face with therapists and counselors to talk about their problems.
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“The tool is incredibly helpful for us at the university,” Myers said. “About two to four students a week use it, which I know doesn’t sound like many, but these students tend to be struggling with significant mental health issues and are at higher risk of suicide.”
The USC Counseling & Human Development Center utilizes a variety of suicide prevention tactics, including the relatively new Interactive Screening Program, the Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Training, crisis intervention, mental health screenings and community-based services including Let’s Talk and Community Consultation and Intervention. These services support the counselors who interact with students who may be reluctant to come to the Counseling Center.
But in terms of online resources, the ISP “is a little bit of a step up because we can engage students in conversations,” she said.
That’s good news to the New York-based American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which developed and customized the interactive tool for colleges and universities around the country to assist in identifying students who may be suffering from depression, stress or mental illness.
In addition to USC, the College of Charleston is preparing to launch the program later this year, and the AFSP hopes to add other South Carolina institutions soon.
“We do hear from students who say, ‘If it weren’t for the program, I wouldn’t have sought the help I needed,’” said Maggie Mortali, AFSP’s manager of education and prevention. “In several (online) dialogues, some of the most resistant students will turn around” and begin to seek the help they need.
The program was developed out of a painful realization that, for many young people, college life is not the whirlwind of new, engaging experiences and happy times depicted in movies and television. Often, college can be lonely and isolating, particularly for students who arrive at school already suffering from stress and depression.
“In 2001, we had several parents who had lost their child at the college age,” Mortali said. “It was one of those things where they didn’t see the warning signs. So they encouraged the foundation to develop the survey for college use.”
In an email to the center, one student expressed the value of the online interaction, writing: “I don’t think I would ever be brave enough to just walk in and ask for help, a hesitation/fear/doubt that I’m sure I share with many other students about going to get counseling. Thank you so much again for reviewing my questionnaire!”
Helen Pridgen, the South Carolina area director of the AFSP, believes strongly in early detection of symptoms of depression and mental illness. Her son, Clay, was an adult when he committed suicide at 25, but she now believes he also suffered undiagnosed depression in his teens.
“He may have had a mild depression in his teens that escalated into a major depression in his 20s due to other complications in his life,” Pridgen said.
“When you think that over 70 percent of people who die by suicide are males, often people explain or attribute some of the warning signs to some of the traits of adolescence,” she said. “This tool can save lives.”
She is proud that the local AFSP chapter has funded $5,000 for the start-up of the ISP at USC and the College of Charleston. The chapter also provides $30,000 for a program at the middle and high school level to train teachers and administrators in detection of depression in teenagers.
“All of us need to know about the warning signs and symptoms,” she said. In January, the South Carolina chapter was recognized for its outreach to educators and students, winning the “Outstanding Chapter Support to Education Award” at the national AFSP Chapter Leadership Conference in Houston.
The New York foundation now has 65 campus sites that offer the Interactive Screening Program in hopes of eliminating some of the barriers that crop up for college students, who may dismiss their symptoms or be fearful that counseling will show up on their college record. Among the colleges are Emory University, Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Colorado and all 10 campuses of the University of California.
“We build it for them, but cater it to their demographic,” said Mortali. “It really empowers the student to take control and do it in a safe space.”
Myers said the interactive tool is helpful for USC’s counselors in quickly assessing the risk of suicide in the students who answer the questions.
“There are three tiers to the program, and the students who are at highest risk, we try to see them within 24 hours,” Myers said. The counseling center has 14 full-time counselors and nine trainees.
“We have therapists primed and ready to respond,” Myers said. “We try to respond as quickly as possible.”