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Providing hope: Psychology professor works to reduce student suicides

The day started off with a typical student advising appointment for University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire psychology professor Jennifer Muehlenkamp — registration dates, course selection and class schedules — until her expert eye began to pick up on some all-too-familiar signs.

"I have personally identified signs of suicide risk in regular academic advising appointments," Muehlenkamp said. "At least two or three students in the past year have admitted to suicidal thoughts during office-hour appointments with me. I also have had conversations with at least four students during the semester who are worried about a friend or family member who is thinking about suicide. That worry adds additional stress, and they want to know what they can do to help."

Muehlenkamp, who specializes in understanding and preventing suicidal and non-suicidal self-injury in youth, including college students, recently received a three-year $304,029 Campus Suicide Prevention grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to help educate the campus community on how to recognize the signs of suicide, depression and anxiety in students. UW-Eau Claire was one of only 15 universities and colleges in the nation to receive the award.

"Suicide is a huge concern on college campuses," Muehlenkamp said. "Approximately 1,100 students are lost to suicide each year across the nation. It is the second leading cause of death in college students."

The grant will enhance the work Muehlenkamp started in 2013 with UW-Eau Claire's Suicide Prevention and Research Collaborative (SPARC), an initiative she developed to address mental health needs on campus. The grant will support new programming and projects that promote mental health, including evidenced-based training for faculty, staff and student leaders on campus to recognize suicide risk among peers and how to respond to them.

As part of the grant, Muehlenkamp will work in collaboration with multiple departments and personnel on campus, including Peggy O'Halloran, director of the Center for Alcohol Studies and Education; Christopher Jorgenson, Women's & LGBTQ Resource Center coordinator; Dr. Lisa Quinn-Lee, assistant professor of social work; Luke Fedie, clinician and clinical case manager in Counseling Services; Jenny Gabler, clinician and outreach coordinator in Counseling Services; and Student Health Service staff.

"The two most common reasons students give for seeking counseling services are anxiety and depression," Fedie said. "If not addressed, they can be very detrimental to student success. Suicide prevention is a very important part of the work we do in Counseling Services. Approximately 41 percent of students who have attended counseling this academic year have reported thoughts of wanting to end their life. Student wellness is important to all of us, and working with Jennifer on the grant allows us to truly utilize that passion and implement effective ways to help them."

Undergraduate students are included in every aspect of SPARC's activities, including development and facilitation of awareness and prevention training programs; course work on suicide prevention; and extensive data collection, analysis and presentation of findings. They will continue to be an integral part of the new initiatives and training, Muehlenkamp said.

"Providing avenues to reduce the risk of suicide in college students makes my job very rewarding and reaffirms my passion for the topic," Muehlenkamp said. "I see hope in my work because I've seen the difference one person can make in the life of another. People can overcome and have successful lives."

For more information about the Campus Suicide Prevention grant or UW-Eau Claire's Suicide Prevention and Research Collaborative, contact Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp at muehlejj@uwec.edu or 715-836-4626.