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UMD Bolsters Suicide Prevention Efforts

New Training From Counseling Center Teaches Staff and Faculty to Identify and Help Students in Distress

By Sala Levin ’10

one person holds out umbrella for another

Recent years have seen increased levels of depression and anxiety among college students nationwide. A new suicide prevention initiative from the University Counseling Center, T.E.R.P.S. for Terps, teaches staff and faculty to identify students in distress and open dialogues with them about mental health.

Illustration by iStock

As Suicide Prevention Month comes to a close this week, the University of Maryland is continuing to ramp up long-term suicide prevention efforts.

This semester, the University Counseling Center begins rolling out T.E.R.P.S. (Training to Evaluate, Respond to, and Prevent Suicide) for Terps, a three-hour training program intended to teach staff and faculty members to identify students who might be experiencing a mental health crisis, talk to them about their concerns and connect them to counseling or more serious psychiatric care if needed.

The initiative strengthens a “culture of care where every staff and faculty member is equipped with tools that they need to be able to respond to a student in distress in a way that's compassionate, a way that's kind, a way that allows for connection and validation to happen, and then allows them to get the student connected to the right resources,” said Chetan Joshi, director of the Counseling Center.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research has shown that over the last 10 to 15 years, college students have experienced increased frequency and severity of mental health concerns—meaning more students nationwide are coming to counseling centers with significant anxiety or major clinical depression, and with an increased incidence of suicidal thoughts or behaviors. A lack of coping mechanisms, feelings of helplessness or a sense of not belonging are among the factors that may contribute to suicidal feelings.

“Suicide is very much in the realm of their lives,” said Joshi.

T.E.R.P.S. for Terps, based on a similar program developed at Syracuse University, teaches staff and faculty members to spot signs that a student might be having serious mental health issues: Take note of changes in behavior, Counseling Center staff said. Is the student usually chatty and engaged during class, but now mostly silent or not even attending? Is there a student worker in your office who usually discusses what new shows they’re streaming with colleagues, and now they respond to every question with one-word answers? Don’t just shrug it off.

Of course, conversations about mental health can be uncomfortable. The training helps staff and faculty members build the skills needed to broach difficult encounters. Participants might be asked to pair up and communicate with one another solely via drawings, quickly learning that clear and simple drawings are easier to understand than more complicated ones. Likewise, a direct question–“Are you having suicidal thoughts?”–is easier to answer than a wordier one.

Over the summer, the Counseling Center led the program as a pilot for all 290 resident assistants on campus. Another 30 or so staff and faculty members have completed the training, after which participants have the option to sign up to learn how to lead the program themselves. The training, which is in its early implementation phase this academic year, is offered on an as-requested basis.

While suicidality is the focus, T.E.R.P.S. for Terps, which is supported by the Parents Philanthropy Board and the Terp Family Fund, is useful for a range of interpersonal interactions, said staff psychologist CJ Polihronakis.

“A lot of the interventions and skills that people learn within this specific program actually are translatable to other mental health concerns or general crises that might happen, like panic attacks or someone just feeling homesick,” he said.

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