Still recovering from the fallout of her aunt’s suicide several months earlier, Megan Nedden knew she needed to find a way to incorporate mental health care work into her campus activities when she arrived at UW-Madison as a freshman in 2016.
“I never wanted anyone to have to feel how my family [did] losing someone [or] how I felt,” Nedden said. “You don't get over it — it sticks with you, and I wanted to be able to help people.”
When she saw a sign for Ask.Listen.Save with the words “suicide prevention” in big green letters at the student organization fair, Nedden knew it was how she wanted to get involved.
Now, a graduating senior and president of the organization, she has been able to serve on the Suicide Prevention Council — a group of mental health professionals, faculty, staff and students tasked with creating and sharing campus mental health resources on suicide prevention.
A significant portion of UW-Madison students have dealt with mental health or suicide — whether in their family, with a friend, a peer or themselves. Students collaborate with campus groups and the university to find new and improved ways to address these difficult experiences.
Offering campus-specific resources
Suicide is the second leading cause of death nationally for people aged 10-34.
On UW-Madison’s campus, 21 percent of students reported self-injury and 11 percent reported suicidal ideation in the previous year, according to data from the 2019 Healthy Minds Survey.
University Health Services has had a suicide prevention program called “At Risk,” since 2013 to engage the campus community in evidence-based suicide prevention strategies that use the current scientific research, clinical expertise and understanding of individuals’ needs.
In the past, UHS resources have included a voluntary online suicide prevention training — but student feedback has led to new expansions and improvements.
In their feedback, students shared that “At Risk” felt superficial and less relevant to their experiences specific to UW-Madison.
“Our ability to develop something that was homegrown and made specifically for our students and for our campus and our community, brought in some of those more specific pieces,” Rachel Dyer, a suicide prevention graduate student coordinator at UHS involved in making the updated training program, said.
One such specific aspect of the new online suicide prevention program was encouraged by data that showed UW-Madison students are more likely to disclose mental health concerns to a friend or peer.
Through a series of training modules available on Canvas, students can learn how to recognize and respond to someone experiencing mental health distress and refer them to the appropriate resources.
“I really think it's part of building the campus capacity to be a more caring community,” Katherine Loving, UHS Healthy Campus program coordinator, said.
Since mental health issues can manifest in many different ways, clinical services might not necessarily be the best intervention for everyone, Loving added.
Because the new program focuses on educating individuals who need to support others who might be struggling, the UHS team also chose to emphasize how an individual’s background affects their view on mental health concerns, Dyer said.
This choice was motivated by research that shows how, sometimes, preexisting attitudes can impact how an individual might go about providing support to a peer. It can also contribute to the stigma around discussing mental health and suicide.
“Encouraging folks to think about what they're coming in with and how they already think about mental health and suicide will inform how they're going to support someone who's struggling,” Dyer said.
Additionally, data from the 2016 Campus Climate Survey indicates that historically underrepresented and marginalized students — including students of color, LGBTQ+ students and students who are financially struggling — are less likely to feel like they belong on campus.
Experts say that these feelings could exacerbate individuals’ mental health concerns and decrease their willingness to seek out resources.
“With a very strong focus on health equity, [this training] really meets our needs to try to address certain populations who don't have as positive health outcomes as others,” Loving said.
UHS is also interested in expanding the training programs available — they have started gathering feedback from graduate students, as well as faculty and staff, on what versions of the suicide prevention training specific to their needs might look like, according to Dyer.
“It feels like [graduate] students are wanting more of a conversation about both personal and professional boundaries whereas the undergrad version focused a lot more on those personal boundaries,” Dyer said.
For example, different power dynamics could impact how individuals respond to support someone in need of mental health help — a graduate student teaching or supervising students may respond differently to their student than their colleague.
Dyer added that since graduate students also tend to be older than undergraduates, they may have different work and personal responsibilities that could affect their mental health and how they access resources.
“I think if everyone would learn about how to create a safe environment, [students] could definitely open up more,” Nedden said.
Creating community to cope with loss and uncertainty
Other campus surveys have shown that Nedden is not alone in her family’s experience — more than 23 percent of students reported they were survivors of suicide loss in 2018.
And the majority of Ask.Listen.Save’s members have either lost someone to suicide, helped someone facing difficulties or have themselves struggled with suicide and mental health illness.
Nedden said she thinks this is one of the group’s biggest assets.
“We all do it for someone or for a reason, [and that makes] it easier to find the motivation and the passion,” Nedden said.
Every year, Ask.Listen.Save partners with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to host an “Out of the Darkness” walk on campus. The event raises awareness about suicide and fundraises for research in evidence-based prevention, policy interventions and ASFP’s educational programs.
Due to COVID-19 and Wisconsin’s subsequent ‘Safer at Home’ order, Ask.Listen.Save had the choice to either cancel this year’s campus walk or have it take place virtually.
“I didn't want to cancel it because I know that, especially in this time, we definitely need to talk about mental health,” Karyn Abrego, Ask.Listen.Save’s walk coordinator, said.
Abrego is now planning to coordinate social media text and video posts so that walk participants can still share their reasons for walking and remind each other that they are not alone.
At the same time, the rapid developments of the pandemic have brought many other disruptions to the daily lives of UW-Madison community members — whether it’s transitioning to online class or shifting into remote employment and research.
All these changes have contributed to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about everything, according to Nedden, who is now in northern Wisconsin with her family.
“Everyone right now, for the most part, is struggling [in some way],” Nedden said, referring to her roommates, friends, classmates, Ask.Live.Save’s executive board and professors.
Looking towards the future
Throughout her time as a UW-Madison student, Nedden has noticed more information about campus mental health resources making its way onto the syllabus for her classes; she said now more of her professors seem willing to engage with their students on the topic.
“I would say that I've [also] just become more comfortable talking about mental health with all my experience,” Nedden said.
Both Nedden and Abrego expressed hope for the suicide prevention training to reach more freshmen — either through SOAR or some type of workshop.
In the meantime, UHS is monitoring the ongoing feedback on their updated training modules to ensure the information stays relevant and accurate.
Additionally, UHS is trying to offer support to students throughout COVID-19 even though many students are no longer on campus. The UHS crisis line remains available and most UHS mental health appointments are being held remotely. Other online resources available to students include SilverCloud, an app offering cognitive behavioral therapy modules for anxiety, depression, stress and body image.
Abrego, who chose to stay in Madison, described how not having a regular schedule and social distancing has been hard for her.
“When I'm confined to my house, my mental health is definitely taking some hits because it just feels like the days are blending together,” Abrego said.
However, Abrego explained how this public health emergency has potentially brought more awareness to mental health, as people who might have never felt anxious, depressed or isolated are recognizing those feelings in themselves.
People are also sharing and asking about mental health resources, Nedden added.
“I'm hoping one of the positives that can come out of the situation is that people feel more comfortable expressing how they're feeling emotionally and mentally,” Nedden said.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
If you are worried about a UW-Madison student or are yourself a UW-Madison student who is thinking about suicide, please reach out UHS at 608-265-5600 (press 9 for 24-hour crisis). SilverCloud also provides UW-Madison students with online, self-guided, interactive mental health treatment options 24 hours a day, without a referral at go.madison.com/silvercloud.