Uncle Joe’s hosts suicide recognition and prevention workshop as demand for mental health care increases on campus

| Senior News Editor
A person in a blue sweater with orange hair addresses two masked individuals sitting on a blue benchHolden Hindes | Student Life

A Joe, left, leads a “fishbowl” training with two event attendees in Hillman 70 Saturday.

Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation. Resources for anyone affected by these topics are listed at the bottom of this article.

Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center facilitated a Suicide Recognition and Prevention Workshop, Oct. 16, to decrease stigmas around mental health and increase awareness of mental health resources on and off campus.

Seniors and Co-Directors of Uncle Joe’s Emily Angstreich and Lily Swenson said that their decision to host the workshop was influenced by increasing national suicide trends, two student suicides at Saint Louis University in September and an increase in clients at Habif Health and Wellness Center.

“We’ve noticed a trend nationally of increasing not just suicidal ideation, but suicides amongst college students,” Angstreich said. “And then when we heard about the suicide[s] at SLU we definitely wanted to make sure that we were doing our part at WashU to help prevent suicide and share our resources in the best way possible to help prevent that from happening in our community.”

“Also we’ve been working with Habif a lot and … they are definitely having an uptick in clients,” Swenson said. 

With about 25 students attending, the workshop focused on common stigmas and misconceptions about suicide, warning signs associated with suicide and suicidal ideation, how to assess risk and safety planning. The Uncle Joe’s panelists emphasized the importance of asking loved ones if they have had suicidal ideations and using an empathetic, non-judgmental approach to the conversation. After the one-hour interactive presentation given by Uncle Joe’s members, participants were placed in small “fishbowl” groups with a club leader and asked to assess risk in different scenarios.

Sophomore Jordan Shonfeld started the panel by addressing common misconceptions about suicide, dispelling the claim that asking about suicidal ideation increases one’s risk of completing suicide. “It actually can help them feel less isolated, more supported, so that’s definitely an important [stigma] to address,” Shonfeld said.

Underscoring the importance of reducing stigmas around mental health and suicide, Shonfeld said that research has found suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students and 12% of college students experience suicidal ideation at some point in college.

Continuing the panel, junior Noe Bustos explained how to assess risk with the scale that Uncle Joe’s uses, including low, moderate and high risk, noting that this is not meant to formally train participants in risk assessment. Potential characteristics of a high risk situation include when an individual has a plan, has a time frame (especially a close one), has acquired means, has attempted suicide in the past or is actively using a substance. Bustos clarified that having one characteristic of any given risk level raises the overall risk of the situation to that level. 

Sophomore Isa Huesa added that after assessing risk, safety planning should be the next step in this scenario.

“If someone is at high risk and you call Provident or the Behavioral Health Response team and provide them with the phone number of the person at risk, then they will be in contact with that person and take further steps to make sure that they are safe,” Huesa said.

Senior Merry May Ma attended the event and appreciated how the workshop enabled her to not only learn but also to apply that knowledge and practice the ideas presented by Joe’s members.

“[The workshop was] both… informative but also helped us to apply the knowledge to practice,” Ma said. “I remember taking notes about several principles: how to evaluate the risk …  I think I have some basic knowledge of how to do this, but then they have the fishbowl practice where we interact with three different kinds of people under different circumstances and we need to apply what we learn to practice.”

Participants also discussed the role of police and WUPD in responding to mental health crises, with Angstreich noting that Uncle Joe’s opts to utilize Behavioral Health Response’s mobile crisis units in an emergency, despite their potentially limited availability.

“As an organization, we prefer not to use WUPD for crisis scenarios,” Angstreich said. “We prefer to use mobile outreach units which are proven to be more effective than police in these scenarios… These people are well trained, they know what they’re doing. We have had good experiences with them in the past.”

She went on to detail ways to make a police intervention as safe as possible for everyone involved.

“We suggest only calling the police if it’s high or imminent risk, if you really cannot guarantee someone’s safety,” she said. “And then it would be helpful if you’re with that person… be with them, help kind of mediate between police… and then when you get on the phone, especially with WUPD, you can say to them, ‘Hey, this person does not need an army coming down their door, they just need hopefully one officer, they need to feel safe… If you’re going to involve the police, communication is really key.”

Sophomore Angela Han also attended the workshop and said that it was amazing to see many students at the event.

“A lot of people came and I felt like that… was kind of a reinforcement of the idea that… what’s happening is real and that it’s important and people care about it and… there are people who want to help and who want to get to know more and really be there for people who are struggling,” she said.

Despite her overall positive feedback on the event, Han said she wished that hospitalization related to mental health was incorporated because that can be a consequence of calling the police in mental health crises.

The demand for mental health care at Washington University has increased in recent years. In line with the uptick in clients at Habif, Uncle Joe’s “numbers have shot up a lot” within the past three to four years, Angstreich said, adding that “maybe a third as many people [were] coming in” about six years ago.

When asked about the long wait times for mental health care at Habif, Swenson said that they are hoping TimelyCare, a telehealth company the University has partnered with, gets rolled out smoothly because it should alleviate the caseload at Habif for mental health services.

“Other schools at our similar level have used TimelyCare, and they all have seen a more stable number of people coming into their student health service, rather than just being overwhelmed. So it definitely should decrease wait times,” she said.

Angstreich suggested that off-campus mental health resources are a good option in addition to Habif.

“Having therapy through Habif is definitely an asset and a great thing for people. But it would also be great if people could feel comfortable going off campus to find their own therapy. However, that process is really daunting,” Angstreich said.

Mental health care manager Missy Showalter is the only Habif employee helping the student body locate services in St. Louis. In an email to Student Life, Director of Mental Health Services Thomas Brounk added that there are also two full-time staff in WashU Cares “that can assist students with finding mental health resources” in the area.

For students who need financial assistance to seek mental health services off campus, the Student Union Mental Health Fund is a resource for students that Angstreich said she hopes to see expanded.

As suicide prevention is Uncle Joe’s biggest priority for the year, this workshop was a starting point and will be given to RAs and WUSAs. Campus organizations can also set up their own workshop by emailing [email protected].

Angstreich emphasized that students can call Uncle Joe’s if they are concerned about a friend and are unsure how to handle a distressing situation.

“We cannot tell someone exactly what they should and should not do because we’re not in that situation,” Angstreich said. “But we can give them resources. We can help them safety plan, we can be a sounding board. We can do the best of our ability to help them out.”

 

Behavioral Health Response (BHR) is a Missouri organization that provides crisis support, telephone counseling and mental health resources. They can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-811-4760.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24/7. They can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/.

The Steve Fund, an organization dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color, has a 24/7 crisis text line that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741741.

The Trevor Project, a suicide preventation organization for LGBTQIA+ individuals, can be reached by calling 1-866-488-7386, texting START to 678-678 or online at thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now/.

Uncle Joe’s is a confidential resource with student counselors trained to provide support for a variety of issues. Counselors are available by phone 24/7 at 314-935-5099 and in person during walk-in hours from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

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