Well Done, Active Minds

An important new study indicates that student mental health organizations such as Active Minds on college campuses increase mental health knowledge, decrease stigma around mental disorders, and increase helping behaviors.

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Facebook photo of Active Minds members at Ithaca College

“Student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors,” said the study, published this week in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “Such organizations can complement more traditional programs and play an important role in improving the campus climate with respect to mental health.”

The study, titled “Strengthening College Students’ Mental Health Knowledge, Awareness, and Helping Behaviors: The Impact of Active Minds, a Peer Mental Health Organization,” surveyed more than 1,100 students during the 2016–17 academic year at 12 California colleges with Active Minds chapters.

A June 28 Washington Post story about the study cited the Active Minds chapter at Ithaca College, and it’s co-president, Zoe Howland:

“The rising senior at Ithaca College joined its chapter her freshman year and says the group made her transition easier. The New York school’s chapter is one of the oldest and largest in the country, averaging about 30 members a year. Among the activities they promote are ‘Speak Your Mind’ panels for which students are trained to tell their own mental-health stories or those of friends or family members. The panels visit classrooms and several times a year address the entire campus. ‘I came in not knowing what I wanted to do,’ said Howland, who is now the group’s co-president. ‘Now I want to go into mental-health advocacy. Active Minds ignited a passion in me that I didn’t know existed.’”

Executive Director Alison Malmon founded Active Minds in 2003 while at the University of Pennsylvania three years after the suicide of her 22-year-old brother Brian, a student on leave from Columbia University. The group has some 450 chapters and operates on more than 600 campuses across the country.

According to the study, student peer organizations conduct a range of activities “to lessen stigma, improve knowledge of mental health, and enhance skills for identifying and referring peers struggling with mental health issues.” Active Minds’ activities include campus installations such as “Send Silence Packing,” a display of more than 1,100 backpacks to represent the number of college students lost to suicide each year; speak-out events and storytelling programs; and discussion groups and and seminars. “These activities help promote an ongoing dialogue about mental health on campus through peer-to-peer conversations, social media, ongoing programming, and campus print media,” said the study.

The study concluded:

“These findings suggest that, in addition to more traditional education or contact-based programs that rely on short-term or singular experiences to reduce stigma and improve knowledge of mental health issues, student peer organizations that establish an on-going presence on campuses and use a combination of educational, contact-based, large-scale programs, and small-group activities initiated and led by peers on campus throughout the year can meaningfully influence not only student perceived knowledge and attitudes but also their behaviors within a single academic year.

“Such changes in how the general student population views and understands mental health issues, brought about by student peer organizations, could be instrumental in shaping a more supportive climate toward mental health issues on campus. This has important implications for addressing student mental health treatment needs, because students with mental health problems are more likely to receive needed services if they feel the climate on their college campus is more positive with respect to mental health.

“Increased familiarity with Active Minds over the school year, whether resulting from exposure to a range of on-campus activities (e.g. public exhibitions and interactive events) or simply general awareness of the organization, appears to have successfully raised perceived mental health knowledge and awareness and decreased stigma, regardless of whether students were actively involved in Active Minds programming. Furthermore, students who became actively involved with Active Minds during the academic year appear to be more likely to take action to support others with mental health issues, behavioral activation that is not commonly seen in many more traditional education or contact-based programs.”

The study noted that the work of campus organizations like Active Minds can potentially increase students’ use of mental health services, but added that there remains a critical need for “sufficient mental health services” to meet the needs of students. “Among college and university students in the United States,” the study said, “there is a substantial gap between the need for mental health treatment and the receipt of mental health services.”

According to the study:

“Recent studies estimate that 20% to 36% of college students deal with some form of serious psychological distress, but that only approximately a third of these students, many of whom have access to on-campus providers and insurance to cover services, receive treatment. This unmet need for mental health care among college students represents a significant public health issue. Young adulthood is a critical period: without treatment for mental health problems, students face a range of potentially serious and lasting consequences, including dropping out, substance misuse, difficulties with social relationships, and lower lifetime earning potential.”

The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

For more information, go to the Active Minds website.

This Summer, On Instagram!

Attention Instagram fans! Meet Sophie Jones, a rising junior at Cornell University who is interning with The Sophie Fund and taking over our Instagramming for the summer. Sophie majors in psychology, minors in visual studies, skates on the Synchronized Skating Team, and volunteers with the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity. You might find her at the Firefly Music Festival, catching Bojack Horseman on Netflix, or sampling the culinary delights of Louie’s Lunch Truck. Sophie is a mental health advocate, and her Instagram posts strive to celebrate the beauty of life in Ithaca and environs. Send her your ideas for images at thesophiefund2016@gmail.com.

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Finding Hope: Battling America’s Suicide Crisis

Watch Anderson Cooper’s CNN town hall, “Finding Hope: Battling America’s Suicide Crisis,” an excellent program exploring the risk factors for suicide, ways to reach out for help, and how to aid somebody who may be struggling.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by dialing 1-800-273-8255. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress, or for those who are helping a person in crisis.

The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain prompted a national conversation about suicide. Anderson Cooper’s Town Hall aired Sunday June 24 and featured the following guests who shared their expertise and experience of being touched by suicide:

Anderson Cooper, CNN anchor

Glenn Close and Jessie Close, actor and her sister

David Axelrod, former advisor to President Barack Obama

Karl Rove, former advisor to President George W. Bush

Christine Moutier, chief medical officer, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Talinda Bennington, widow of Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington, co-founder of 320 Changes Direction

Kirsten Powers, USA Today columnist

Randi Kaye, CNN reporter

Zak Williams, son actor and comedian Robin Williams

Jane Clementi, co-founder Tyler Clementi Foundation

James Hatch, former U.S. Navy SEALs member

Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent.

Jordan Burnham, Active Minds mental health advocate

Dese’Rae L. Stage, artist, public speaker, and suicide prevention activist, creator of Live Through This

Tompkins Coalition: “Yes” to Zero Suicide Model

The Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition on Monday overwhelmingly voted to recommend the Zero Suicide Model for healthcare providers as a countywide suicide prevention initiative. Deputy Mental Health Services Commissioner Sharon MacDougall said the coalition’s recommendation will be sent to the Community Services Board and the Tompkins County Legislature for consideration.

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Deputy Tompkins County Mental Health Services Commissioner Sharon MacDougall (center) with Cornell University students Winnie Ho of Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and Sophie Jones of The Sophie Fund

Four healthcare organizations attending the meeting also announced their agreement to become Zero Suicide “champions”—Tompkins County Mental Health Services; Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County; Cornell Health, the healthcare center of Cornell University; and Cayuga Area Plan/Preferred, Inc., which represents primary care providers. MacDougall asked the champions to “commit to the model and report back to this coalition next spring in 2019.” In March, the Cayuga Medical Center announced its adoption of the Zero Suicide Model.

Prior to the meeting, about 50 people attended a community presentation on the Zero Suicide Model given by Jillian King and Olivia Retallack of the New York State Office of Mental Health’s Suicide Prevention Office.

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The Zero Suicide Model holds that suicide prevention is a core responsibility of healthcare. Specifically, this entails a systematic clinical approach in healthcare systems—training staff, screening for suicide ideation, utilizing evidence-based interventions, mandating continuous quality improvement, treating suicidality as a presenting problem. The model’s developers argue that suicides can be prevented by closing cracks in healthcare systems—that “suicide deaths for individuals under care within health and behavioral health systems are preventable.”

King and Retallack called suicide “an enormous public health problem,” and noted that many people who take their own lives are receiving treatment in healthcare systems. According to data they presented, 80 percent of people who died by suicide had healthcare visits within the prior 12 months. And most had a recent visit: 45 percent had a primary care visit within a month of their deaths; and 19 percent had contact with mental health services within the past month.

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Inadequate training is part of the problem. In a 2014 survey of New York State mental health providers, 64 percent felt they had little or no specialized training for suicide intervention; 33 percent did not feel they had sufficient training to assist suicidal patients.

MacDougall recounted how Tompkins County Mental Health Services improved its suicide prevention efforts when it began adopting the Zero Suicide Model in 2016:

“What I realized was that we weren’t using evidence-based assessments or screening tools to ask the question. We were talking about depression. We were talking about things with our clients. But we didn’t actually use a specific screener, or a specific assessment that’s based on the best research available to ask the questions.

“So immediately we instituted C-SSRS [Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale], it’s an evidence-based screening tool that you can use for everyone. And we use it for everyone who walks in our door for an intake, and we use it on a regular basis for anyone who is even coming close to discussing suicide or depression issues. That was one step we made from that first year.

“We also looked at the fact that we weren’t doing safety plans. We were doing an older version, like a recovery plan, or a plan of care, but not a true safety plan. So we use that on anybody who tests positive after asking the suicide assessment.

“The third thing we realized was that our staff wanted and needed more training. They were asking for more training. All of our staff completed online certification training on online webinars.

“Early progress from this is that I think we have staff who are far more trained and much better at identifying and engaging clients who have suicide [thoughts]. We actually just ask the question now. It’s not just the depression screening. We actually ask ‘Are you feeling suicidal?’ And we actually dig in deeper.”

The Sophie Fund, which sponsored The Watershed Declaration in April 2017 calling for intensified suicide prevention efforts in Tompkins County,  released a statement Monday following the coalition’s meeting:

“The Sophie Fund would like to thank the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition for supporting the Zero Suicide initiative. There are many agencies and individuals to acknowledge for their leadership, but we’d like to particularly thank Frank Kruppa and Sharon MacDougall of the Tompkins County Mental Health Services; Lee-Ellen Marvin of the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service; and the Cayuga Medical Center, for its recent adoption of the Zero Suicide Model.

“We must do more to prevent suicide in Tompkins County. The Zero Suicide Model is an essential approach for saving lives. As the next step, The Sophie Fund renews its call on all the leading community and campus healthcare agencies in Tompkins County to commit to the Zero Suicide Model and to begin the implementation process as expeditiously as possible.

“We are experiencing a mental health crisis in the United States—and we must step up to meet that challenge. A terrible part of that crisis is the alarming rise in suicides. Just this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that the national suicide rate increased 25.4 percent from 1999 to 2016. There are more than 1 million suicide attempts every year. It is the second leading cause of death among young people 15-24 years of age.”

Dash! Splash! It’s Newfield’s Color Run!

The grounds of Newfield High School were ablaze in festive shades of pink, blue, and orange on Saturday as some 250 students, parents, and community members took part in the school’s annual spring Color Run.

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Under a brilliant sun and cloudless sky, everyone from senior citizens to toddlers in strollers to families with pets in tow trekked along their choice of routes—the standard five-kilometer course, one-mile course, or the “family” half-mile track. At five stations along the way the joggers and walkers were doused with colored powder, sometimes to shrieks of delight. With dozens of volunteer organizers on hand to help, music, lawn games, and hot dogs rounded out the day’s fun.

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The Color Run is sponsored by—and raises money for—a great student club at Newfield High School, Sources of Strength (SOS). This is part of a national peer-led suicide prevention program, originally developed in North Dakota in 1998, that promotes hope, help, strength, and connections, and provides support to struggling students.

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Newfield High School heard about Sources of Strength six years ago, and affiliated researchers and trainers at the University of Rochester offered two years of support and a bit of funding to help pilot the program in some Tompkins County schools.

What made this program so appealing to us at Newfield was the unique focus of having peer leaders deliver powerfully positive, strength-driven messages. The University of Rochester researchers had already collected solid data from several schools in North America proving the effectiveness of Sources of Strength.

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As Sources of Strength explains it:

“A best practice youth suicide prevention project designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying, and substance abuse. The mission of Sources of Strength is to prevent suicide by increasing help seeking behaviors and promoting connections between peers and caring adults. Sources of Strength moves beyond a singular focus on risk factors by utilizing an upstream approach for youth suicide prevention. This upstream model strengthens multiple sources of support (protective factors) around young individuals so that when times get hard they have strengths to rely on.”

Each fall, the club’s co-advisors—myself and high school counselor Rick Pawlewicz—take our group of diverse peer leaders through a half-day training to learn about the mission and key messages of Sources Of Strength.

In becoming key “connectors” in their school, the peer leaders focus on identifying and utilizing eight different strengths in our lives: positive friends, healthy activities, family support, mentors, spirituality, generosity, medical access, and mental health. They share stories at weekly SOS meetings about struggles, stressors, and how they use personal sources of strength to get through tough times. Helping to break the silence around mental health, peer leaders actively seek out others to connect them with resources and to their own sources of strength. They continually send the message that it’s okay to talk about tough times, and that it’s essential to tap into our personal strengths and reach out for help.

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SOS peer leaders at Newfield High have created, facilitated, and engaged in countless messaging activities inside our school and in the wider community. The activities include simple, visual messages like posters, cards, videos, and social media posts; trivia games during all lunch periods; Sources of Strength Weeks; pep rallies; and the annual Extravaganzas—nights of fun on campus with games, music, art, and food. The peer leaders give community presentations on their activities, to the Newfield Central School District Board of Education and the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). And, of course, hundreds of community members come out for the annual Color Run.

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We are proud of Newfield High School’s peer leaders and the mentors (teachers, staff, administrators, coaches, etc.) who support their efforts to promote hope, help, strength, and connections throughout every corner of our community. Our goal is that every student knows that they are not alone, and there is always help and support available.

—By Jamie McCaffrey

Jamie McCaffrey, LCSW is a social worker in the Newfield Central School District

Photos courtesy Jamie McCaffrey