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A little SPARC goes a long way: Suicide Prevention Month goes virtual during pandemic

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Health educators and interns with the UW-Eau Claire Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative conducted a socially distant plant giveaway event on Sept 23, with a theme of self-care and reaching out for help when needed.

We know that even in the most ideal circumstances, during the most normal of times, college is a stressful time for many Blugolds. We have always known this fact and have worked diligently to establish a wide safety net of mental health services and programs to address this concern, a reality that can impact students of all backgrounds and abilities. 

But let's face it — 2020 has presented us with far less than ideal circumstances, and these are the least "normal" of times we have ever experienced as a community. 

Luckily for Blugolds, UW-Eau Claire quickly adapted existing programming last spring to conduct mental health care outreach virtually, efforts that have continued this fall, bolstered by a few socially distant events designed to remind students of self-care and available mental health resources. 

Christina Prust, health educator with Student Health Service

Christina Prust, health educator with Student Health Service

Christina Prust, a health educator with Student Health Service, has spent much of the fall semester working with peer-to-peer student outreach interns in the Student Wellness Advocacy Team (SWAT) and the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative (SPARC) on ways to connect with students, particularly during the month of September which was National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. 

"Obviously things have looked a lot different, like everything else, but we're reaching students where they are — online — and coming up with new ways to connect and support students who feel that they need help," Prust says. "The SPARC students have done a really great job and have developed many ideas that we will probably continue using into the future. When we can't be there in person for them, we are making sure that all the online resources and virtual counseling sessions are easy to find and ready to support their needs." 

One of those SPARC student interns, Delaney Collins, knows very well the importance of mental health care and self-awareness about these concerns. Her work as a peer-to-peer educator is a rewarding way to also keep her own health on track. 

Delaney Collins

Delaney Collins, a senior intern for the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative, spent the late spring and summer months moving the SPARC outreach programming to virtual delivery platforms.

"As someone who deals with mental illness myself, I find peer-based support and connection to be crucial during the uncertainty the pandemic has caused," Collins says. "So often, we feel unable to live up to the expectations projected on social media, and I hope that the SPARC activities and social media accounts help to validate and normalize struggles many young adults are facing. Understanding that it is okay to feel negative emotions but finding an overall message focus of hope for a better tomorrow — that is what I hope to ignite in our student body." 

The senior social work and psychology double major from Green Bay is finding ways to integrate her own studies, research and clinical experience into valuable mental health outreach programming. 

"What I've developed benefits from psychology driving the promotion of evidence-based practices, and social work reminding me of how important intersectionality is in mental wellbeing," Collins says. "I hope that the graduate program admissions board in my future recognizes my initiative, creativity, and clinical skills I have displayed through this internship."

Maximizing reach through social media

When campus closed and all classes went online last spring, Collins went to work immediately in creating Instagram and Facebook accounts to transition the outreach to a virtual delivery, accounts where students would find a huge variety of informative resources, live and recorded activities and events, and most importantly, a community of people working hard to maintain good mental health practices during very uncertain and changing times. 

On the SPARC Facebook page, Collins and four other interns established a steady and engaging stream of posts that range from links to informative resources, DIY activities and tutorials, meaningful quotes, ideas about motivation and self-care, and tips for successful online learning. 

"The other students all have different majors and interests, so it's allowed us to come up with a really fun variety of activities to help keep students connecting with our page and staying engaged," Collins says. "Every Friday in October, there is a new DIY activity hosted on the page, either as a live video or pre-recorded, from baking to art, just simple activities even students in the COVID-19 dorm can participate in."  

Emily Webster, Ian Pongratz, Amber Bouche and Paige Kurtz are the four students working with Collins on these projects — all students who had previously been hired as peer coordinators for the SPARC "Life Savers" suicide prevention training. Due to social distancing, these training sessions are suspended this fall, and Prust shifted their duties to assist in the virtual outreach work. 

"Before the pandemic, I would go to classes and campus groups and present the LifeSavers Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Training. It's a 50-minute presentation that teaches people how to recognize the risk factors and warning signs of suicide in peers, and how to effectively react to them," says Webster, a senior nursing major from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. "Over the summer, I was able to help with some bookkeeping and planning for this semester, which included developing an updated PowerPoint for the presentation. Another LifeSaver, Emerson Ngu, and I recorded the presentation with the help of LTS in September, and it's been sent to over 20 classes so far."  

Important SPARC giveaways

Student in face mask holinf two small plants, outside on campus mall

Ian Pongratz, senior psychology major from Rice Lake and intern for the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative (SPARC)

On Sept. 23, SPARC conducted an in-person event on the campus mall, a plant giveaway that was designed to provide an opportunity to make students aware of Counseling Services. 

"It was meant to make the connection between caring for a plant and good mental health," Prust says. "They got a 'Bloom where you are planted' sticker, a small plant and the Counseling Services brochure. Students were so appreciative — it was a great way to brighten their day and make them smile, while communicating valuable information." 

Anther more tangible way that the SPARC program and health educators are reaching out to students is through "quarantine kits" they've assembled to have delivered to all students assigned to Putnam Hall for a period of quarantine. So far they've delivered over 30 kits to students and have received Foundation funding for a stock of 25 additional packs. 

"Each student gets a reusable bag with supplies for DIY: heat pack, crayons, coloring sheets, a stress ball and a few other fun little things," Prust says. "We also got the OK to give all those students a plant as well, so that will also be delivered." 

These giveaways, along with social media and a full September yard-sign campaign on campus and Water Street, provided a steady stream of information about the warning signs of suicide, the national websites, National Suicide Prevention Hotline and the Texting Hope hotline, and campus resources for help — all efforts that have been rewarding work for everyone involved.  

"Supporting mental health promotion and increasing suicide awareness and prevention on campus is more important now than ever," Webster says. "As students, we need to be aware of our own mental health, as well as that of our friends and peers. A lot of people are struggling with their mental health right now, but it just takes one person reaching out and saying something like 'Hey, I noticed you've seemed down recently. Do you want to talk about it? I'm here for you,' to make a difference. We have a great team of students and staff working to support students during these stressful times, and I'm very proud to be a part of that team."

If you or anyone you know is suffering with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text "Hello" to the National Crisis Text Line, 741741. Trained experts are available at both services to help, without judgment.

For more information about Counseling Services at UW-Eau Claire, please visit their website or call (715) 836-5521.