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Peer-to-peer outreach programs help Blugolds address mental health

| Judy Berthiaume

Lira Fuguet was in her first year of college in Minnesota when she developed intense symptoms of mental illness, a health crisis that led to multiple hospital stays and a few years of outpatient treatment.

After taking time away from college to focus on her health, Fuguet — now a senior at UW-Eau Claire — is helping fellow Blugolds recognize and talk about mental health issues.

Her hope is that by educating her peers, they will be better prepared to respond when they see friends and others on campus struggling with their mental health.

“As a student, I know that my peers are more likely to talk to me or another peer about mental or emotional distress way before they talk to a professional,” Fuguet says. “That's why it's super important that we learn to recognize the warning signs that someone might be thinking about suicide, practice asking directly about suicidal intentions and familiarize ourselves with resources on campus.”

Fuguet, who plans to graduate in December 2020 with degrees in social work and psychology, is a student presenter in the university’s LifeSavers program, a program that encourages Blugolds to talk with other Blugolds about signs of mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

The LifeSavers program is part of UW-Eau Claire’s Suicide Prevention and Research Collaborative (SPARC), a multifaceted initiative involving mental health outreach, programming, training, academics, research and policy/protocol development.

“I designed SPARC and put it into action about eight years ago to fill a gap that was missing on campus regarding suicide prevention and mental health promotion,” says Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, a professor of psychology and an internationally recognized expert on suicide prevention and self-injury among young people, including college students.

SPARC is more important than ever given a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that finds that the suicide rate among those between ages 10-24 has jumped by 56 percent in just a decade.

The SPARC initiative brings together multiple campus offices, staff and resources to address students’ mental health needs.

With the coordinated approach, staff in university offices — like Housing, Student Health Services and Dean of Students Office — now have shared assessment tools and consistent protocols to guide them as they respond to students struggling with mental health problems.

While the initiative does train faculty and staff on suicide prevention, it also educates students, so they are prepared to share information with peers about suicidal behaviors, interventions and campus resources.

“SPARC continues to be very successful and is most known for its outreach programming, including LifeSavers,” Muehlenkamp says.

Peer-to-peer education

LifeSavers is effective because many students can better relate to information about mental health when it comes from another student, Fuguet says.

Hearing a peer talk about mental health and suicide prevention also illustrates that it’s a topic that is relevant to young people, making it more likely that college students will pay attention, she says.

“It challenges societal stigma when students can see people just like them comfortably talking about subjects like mental illness and suicide,” says Fuguet of Minnetonka, Minnesota. “These are normally considered difficult topics in our society, but, with a little practice, talking about mental health can become as easy as talking about physical health.”

Charlie Krula, a coordinator of Student Support Services who teaches a class for first-year students, agrees.

“I believe the LifeSavers program addresses mental health and wellness, and the risk for suicidality, in a way that reduces the stigma of mental health struggles,” says Krula, who has invited LifeSavers presenters into his classroom multiple times. “The presentation humanizes the realities of suicide in our culture, and in college communities.

“It provides students the means to offer support to friends and acquaintances who are struggling, while maintaining boundaries appropriate to a peer helping role.”

Students do seem to listen and engage throughout the program, Krula says, adding that students seem to appreciate that the topic is being addressed in the classroom.

After the LifeSavers sessions, students have reached out to him to share their own personal stories about friends who have died by suicide and their appreciation that UW-Eau Claire is bringing attention to a topic that people often want to keep hidden, Krula says.

“We know that many students have been affected by loss to suicide even at their relatively younger ages,” Krula says. “A direct and intentional focus on suicidal risk helps, I think, with students becoming more confident that people can become more resilient in the face of adversity, when they experience support and draw on the courage to access appropriate care.”

Since LifeSavers was launched, more than 8,300 students have gone through the training, Muehlenkamp says. Data shows that within three months of the training, approximately 75 percent of those students say they have recognized a peer in distress and/or referred them for help, she says.

LifeSavers student presenters go through extensive training, preparing them to educate their peers on everything from suicide warning signs to on-campus resources that are available to students who are struggling with mental health issues, says Christina Prust, a health educator in Student Health Service who oversees student wellness advocacy efforts on campus and coordinates the LifeSavers program.

Two trained student peer educators deliver the 50-minute LifeSavers program when invited by faculty, staff, student organization leaders, resident assistants or others.

The suicide awareness/prevention program is designed to teach students how to recognize the signs that someone is struggling, how to ask about it and how to intervene, and how to refer that person to professional help, Prust says.

The presentations begin with a summary of relevant statistics to illustrate how prevalent suicidal thinking is and how important it is to recognize the warning signs and know how to help, Fuguet says.

Presenters then talk specifically about what warning signs might look like, and things to do or say when they are concerned about another student. They encourage students to discuss concerns if they see warning signs, including asking someone specifically about suicidal thoughts, Fuguet says.

They also educate students about on-campus resources, reminding them that they already pay for the services via tuition and fees so there are no additional costs.

“The No. 1 thing that I want students to take away from the LifeSavers training is that treatment can work,” Fuguet says. “If you are suffering, or if someone you know is suffering, there are resources available to help you. There are professionals on campus whose literal job it is to support you and who have been trained to do just that. No matter how bad you are feeling or how impossible your situation seems, there is hope.”

Prust says another SPARC initiative, the Green Bandana Project, also is raising awareness on campus about mental wellness. Blugolds tie green bandanas on their backpacks to let others know that they support them, she says.

Already, Prust says she’s given away more than 1,600 bandanas. Students want them because they know that it’s important to raise awareness about mental wellness, and to let those who are struggling know that they are not alone, she says.

“A student who feels lonely may see a bandana and it’s a comfort,” Prust says. “It tells them there are people on campus who support them and who care. It’s another example of students supporting students.”

Stress-free spaces

While outreach programming is a big part of the SPARC initiative, program leaders also have created spaces on campus that are purposely designed to help Blugolds de-stress, Prust says.

Among those spaces is Rest Nest, an area on the fifth floor of McIntyre Library that is designed to help students relax and study without noise or distractions.

Already this semester, students have used the Rest Nest space about 70 times, Prust says.

Kaitlyn Behnke is one of those students.

With a busy schedule and a lot of academic demands, the nursing major says she’s a fan of the Rest Nest because it’s a space where she can go to de-stress but also get her homework done.

“I like to come relax and study between or after classes,” says Behnke, a senior from Brillion. “I haven't visited the Rest Nest as much this semester due to my clinical schedule, which keeps me off campus most days, but last semester I went at least once a week. I'm hoping to go more often once I finish this semester's clinical.”

Students come to the Rest Nest to chill out, work on a puzzle, play games or to find a quiet place to study, Prust says.

“It’s a safe space where they can find peer support or a place they can visit just to de-stress,” Prust says.

The Rest Nest is staffed by students who go through extensive training so they can best meet visitors' needs, Prust says. For example, one student may come to the Rest Nest needing someone to talk with about a problem, while others might just be looking for a place to come de-stress and enjoy a relaxing activity, she says.

While many students can tune out noise and other distractions while studying, Behnke says that doesn’t work well for her. That means it’s hard for her to get her work done in Davies Center or even parts of the library where there are a lot of students moving around or talking, she says.

“For me, the Rest Nest functions as somewhere to both relax and study,” Behnke says. “I like to go after classes and rest briefly before working on homework. It's a relaxing environment that allows me to de-stress after class, while being in a semi-private space where I can work on homework afterward.

“I can stay productive without stressing and I can head home afterward without worrying about having work left to do.”

Getting the word out to students about the Rest Nest and other campus resources that can help them manage stress is important, Behnke says.

“UWEC has a lot of resources available along this line of self-care, but students are often unaware of what is available or unsure of how or when to access it,” Behnke says. “For myself, the process of applying to and beginning with the nursing program was very stressful. I wish I had been more aware of resources like this to help relieve that stress.”

Preparing Blugolds for future success

Since the LifeSavers program was established, more than 50 undergraduate students have been trained as peer educators, Prust says. 

An additional 25 UW-Eau Claire students have completed internships within SPARC, playing significant roles in planning and implementing outreach efforts relating to mental wellness and suicide prevention awareness on campus.

While students who serve as peer educators and interns in the SPARC programs are passionate about helping their peers, they also take something from the experience.

For example, Fuguet says she’s gaining skills and experiences that will serve her well in her future career.

“The LifeSavers program is a way for me to apply my academic and personal experiences in a way that could directly benefit students like me who might be struggling in the same ways I used to,” Fuguet says. “My professional goal is to become a clinical social worker specializing in mental health, so this is the beginning of what I hope will be a long career of supporting others in their journey toward mental health.”

Photo caption: Lira Fuguet (right) is among the Blugolds who are leading training sessions for their peers on mental health issues. Kaitlyn Behnke (left) makes use of the Rest Nest to de-stress and finish her homework in a quiet space.