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UW-Eau Claire increases investment and programming to prevent suicide

| Denise Olson (story); Glen Mabie (video)

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is investing new resources into its efforts to promote mental health and prevent suicides among its students.

The university will match a $306,000 grant it recently received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Monies from the three-year grant will support ongoing mental health outreach and programming.

UW-Eau Claire’s Suicide Prevention and Research Collaborative (SPARC) was awarded the SAMHSA grant, the third such award for its ongoing cross-campus initiative that aims to promote mental health and reduce the risk of suicide among students.

Jennifer Muehlenkamp

Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, professor of psychology and director of the UW-Eau Claire Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative (SPARC)

Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, professor of psychology and SPARC founder, wants students and their families to know that faculty and staff across campus “have student mental health and wellbeing at the forefront.”  

“These funds will enhance support for student wellbeing and resilience and help prevent suicide and the worsening of existing mental health conditions that some students face,” Muehlenkamp says.

The two previous SAHMSHA grants laid the groundwork for this next phase of the SPARC initiative, which will bring together mental health awareness and outreach efforts across the campus, Muehlenkamp says. All student service and support offices at UW-Eau Claire share the same goal — to create a mentally healthy campus and take a proactive approach to support prevention, she says.

UW-Eau Claire will receive $102,000 in SAMHSA grants every year for three years. The university will match those dollars each year, bringing the total investment in mental health and suicide risk reduction and prevention to $612,000 by 2024.

“The first two grants allowed us to set the foundation on campus and establish policies, protocols and use of best practices in student-facing units across campus,” Muehlenkamp says. “We included the Dean of Students Office, Counseling Services, Student Health Service, Housing and Residence Life and University Police to establish shared protocols for screening and responding to mental health crises, including suicide. We also provide training for use of those approaches.”

The array of offices and staff across campus that support students and their wellbeing will remain the same, although additional units may be engaged to broaden efforts.

However, the new funding will allow for improved screening mechanisms and more coordinated, targeted and proactive outreach and crisis support. Muehlenkamp says the more coordinated approach will allow the university to be more effective and holistic in its approach to mental health promotion; make the most of available resources; and reach a wider, more diverse population of students in need of support.

“When thinking about mental health services on campus, most people assume that it is the responsibility of Counseling Services, and they do play a substantial role in working with students who are in crisis or are currently experiencing mental health struggles,” Muehlenkamp says.

“In reality, in addition to Counseling Services, the Dean of Students Office is responding to student needs all the time, both mental health related as well as life or stress related. The same is true of other units like Housing and Residence Life, who incorporate programming to help students feel supported and connected to a community.”.

“What I love about this SAMHSA grant, and the reason I’ve continued to seek these funds, is that it fosters a very holistic approach with vested groups across campus pooling resources and sharing responsibility for student wellness.”

A foundation in education, prevention and intervention

UW-Eau Claire’s SAMSHA-supported project, “Project Thrive: Building Resilience and Wellbeing for Student Success,” has four central goals:

  • Over each year of the grant, reduce the number of students withdrawing/taking leave for mental health reasons.
  • By the end of the grant, reduce the number of students hospitalized for severe psychiatric symptoms, suicide risk and/or substance detox by enhancing mental health services.
  • Each year of the grant, increase prevention outreach to prevent the development or worsening of mental health/substance use disorders among students.
  • Establish a student wellness team to coordinate mental health, substance use reduction and suicide prevention efforts, adding two new partnering units/offices each year of the grant.

The campus units directly responsible for implementing the grant are: The Suicide Prevention and Research Collaborative (SPARC), an initiative established through and housed in the psychology department; Office of Health Promotion; and Counseling Services.

Prevention is the best cure

SAMSHA, a key national player in suicide prevention, states that “suicide is a national public health problem, and everyone can play a role in prevention.”

With that in mind, UW-Eau Claire is increasing its focus on prevention. The university’s health education staff, along with teams of student peer educators, will play critical roles in mental health promotion and substance abuse reduction among students.   

Katie Wilson

Katie Wilson, health educator with the Office of Health Promotion

Katie Wilson, professional health educator with the Office of Health Promotion, says there are many approaches to prevention and promotion that she and her staff can use, given the increased funding.

“We are here to promote health broadly across campus, through outreach, education, skill building and through policy change,” says Wilson, whose expertise is in alcohol and drug abuse prevention.

“Since suicide prevention efforts include addressing the impact of alcohol and drugs on mental health, this grant will fund our AlcoholEdu program, which is the education module for all first-year students. Additionally, we can train more faculty and staff, and equip them to recognize and handle mental health situations with students.”

Christina Prust, health educator with Student Health Service

Christina Prust, health educator with the Office Health Promotion

Through Office of Health Promotion, public health educator Christina Prust works with teams of students who conduct year-round outreach and education on the topics of overall wellbeing, as well as focused programming around mental health and suicide prevention.

“There are three parts of what our SPARC students do — the Lifesavers suicide prevention training, the Rest Nest, which is a library resource space where students can unwind and potentially find a peer to talk to, and the Green Bandana Project.”

The green bandana project, Prust explains, is a sort of passive outreach project that involves student volunteers giving away green bandanas at campus events, which are to be tied to student bags or backpacks as an outward display of support for a mentally healthy campus.

Green bandana project

Students across campus can be seen carrying bags with the green bandanas, an initiative intended to provide visible support for a mentally healthy campus.

“Carrying the green bandana signals to others that you support a mentally healthy campus and want to support those living with mental illness on campus,” Prust says. “I like to think that if a student is walking through campus, maybe they are going through some tough things in their life, just seeing that green bandana can remind them that people here care about them. Without necessarily even talking to that other person, they can feel comforted by the message of support.”

The volunteers and interns on the student teams Prust and Wilson work with are trained to refer students in need of help to the many resources and services available on campus, including Counseling Services.

When mental health care is needed

Counseling Services will be able to further its reach and expand its prevention efforts with the new funding, says Dr. Riley McGrath, director of Counseling Services.

“Although this grant will not increase our overall capacity, it will help us increase our prevention outreach programming, thus connecting students with more preventative services,” McGrath says.

McGrath says additional suicide prevention trainings across campus will help faculty and staff learn more about what to look for, how to respond and how to help connect someone with additional services if they indicate suicidal thoughts. This is mainly done through the Campus Connect Suicide Prevention Training, and McGrath says the grant will allow for new identity-specific trainings on campus, such as trainings related to suicide among veterans or suicide in the LGBTQIA+ community.

The preventative training and outreach will help bring UW-Eau Claire closer to McGrath’s vision of a “mentally healthy campus.”

“I believe a mentally healthy campus is a campus where mental health is talked about openly,” McGrath says. “Faculty including mental health statements on their syllabi and attending the suicide prevention trainings offered on campus will build those open conversations and connect more students with resources.”

McGrath sees other efforts on campus also helping to build a more mentally healthy campus, including Student Health Service’s work to provide needed medications, the Dean of Students Office’s efforts to proactively connect students to needed services, the work done by Housing and Residence Life to create a sense of community, and the many online resources for students that help them build coping skills.

“This grant will help us conduct more stigma reduction work as well, which will bring more students to our door when they need us,” McGrath says. “We want students to know that there is no issue ‘too small’ to seek counseling help, and the longer an issue is put off, the worse things can become. Asking for help is that first step toward feeling better.”

Peer educators can make all the difference

Whether it’s talking to classes about suicide prevention, giving out green bandanas, offering support in the Rest Nest or giving away plants on the campus mall with a message to students about self-care, teams of Blugold peer educators already are working to strengthen students’ mental health. 

As the lead student intern for SPARC, senior psychology major Amber Bouche has seen how basic knowledge and training can equip a student to save a life. Bouche and her fellow peer educators are excited that the grant will provide more funding to help them reduce risks for suicide while promoting overall mental health for Blugolds.

“I am passionate about working in the field of mental health for many reasons,” says Bouche, a native of Green Bay. “I truly believe that a proactive approach to mental health should be a priority in everyone’s life. This type of work lets me connect with other students while providing support and hope. Being a part of SPARC lets me advocate for students while also decreasing the stigma around mental health care on our campus.”  

Ian Pongratz, a senior psychology major and SPARC student volunteer, has worked with the suicide prevention collaborative for two years, and sees it as his opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

“I am motivated to work with SPARC because I want to help others have a better understanding of mental health, suicide and prevention,” Pongratz says.

Pongratz, who grew up in Rice Lake, says mental health is not always a topic that is openly discussed in a smaller community. Living in a college community has helped him see how important it is to talk about mental health. 

Riley McGrath

Dr. Riley McGrath, director of Counseling Services

“I have relocated several times in my short lifetime,” Pongratz says. “Originally, I came from a very small town with more traditional ideas, and mental health is not taken as seriously. Living in a more progressive community, I am seeing mental health taken seriously and given the attention it deserves. Even in my small town, however, I am starting to see more institutional and systemic changes in how mental health is approached, which hopefully can lead to change in how the average citizen treats it as well.” 

Bouche and Pongratz are encouraged by the attitudes they see on campus, where students and faculty often are grateful for their SPARC outreach and Lifesaver training.

“Often, I am simply told ‘thank you for doing this,’” Pongratz says, noting that students often describe the programs as “powerful, impactful and encouraging.”

For Bouche, seeing the green bandanas is proof that the work they are doing is valuable, and that stigmas around mental health are fading.

“This year, I have already seen a big increase in the number of students walking around with green bandanas tied to their backpacks,” Bouche says. “I think it is awesome to plainly see all of the students at UWEC who support mental health promotion!”

For Prust, a story shared by her mother reminds her that the work she is doing is valuable.

“My mom, who obviously knows all about my work here, met a person whose child had been forced to withdraw from college at a different campus because there were not adequate services available to address a mental health situation,” Prust says. “She said to me ‘They didn’t have all the great support that is available at UW-Eau Claire.’”