Opinion Extra

Op-ed: USC president Caslen says breaking the silence is key to suicide prevention

During my career I have been honored to work in settings that attract some of the most promising, passionate and diverse individuals to their ranks: the United States Army and institutions of higher education. Sadly, my tenure in these outstanding organizations has made me keenly aware of a threat that looms disproportionally large over both of their populations.

Among college students surveyed this spring by the American College Health Association, 13 percent reported that they had seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months. It’s the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among people ages 15 to 34, and an average 20 veterans a day die by suicide.

This week, National Suicide Prevention Week, reminds us of these startling statistics and urges us to consider what we are doing to help stop suicide and improve mental health.

At the University of South Carolina, we devote significant resources to mental health care, wellness and suicide prevention. In fact, South Carolina is among the few schools nationwide to be awarded the JED Campus Seal for demonstrating an ongoing commitment to the emotional well-being of students. Supported by an exceptional staff of counselors, psychiatrists and other mental health care providers, UofSC offers a broad array of resources and programs to identify students in need; connect them with the right type of care; and, when appropriate, help them learn to manage their conditions with self-care.

Despite our best efforts, we still are vulnerable, and we look for ways to do better.

This fall a pair of new initiatives will help us do that. We will embark on what we’re calling The Resiliency Project, an effort to help our residential students develop coping skills, build resilience and create connections with other students.

Backed by a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, we also will be aiming to increase access to mental health and substance abuse services and resources, focusing on student populations including student veterans, LGBTQ students, students of color, students with low economic resources and students who display high-risk behavior like binge drinking. Research shows that these students, compared to others, have an increased need for services but are less likely to seek them.

There are numerous factors that contribute to a person’s risk for suicide – depression, trauma, substance abuse, impulsiveness, isolation and physical illness among them. One that is particularly common — and that we have the power to eliminate — is silence.

Silence breeds stigma, preventing people from talking about their problems, let alone asking for help in coping with them. We can counter that by having open conversations about mental health and demonstrating — sincerely — that there is no shame in seeking help. We can learn the warning signs, support our fellow community members and take care of our own health.

As I have said before, we are better together. Together, we can make our community — our beloved Gamecock family — a stronger and healthier one.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Veterans can press 1 to be connected to a responder from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for Caslen’s position at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was superintendent.

Bob Caslen, the University of South Caro­lina’s 29th president, is a retired Army lieutenant general and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.