After 9 suicides, CSU takes bold steps toward prevention

5:23 AM, Apr 5, 2010   |    comments
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"We're not shying away from the conversations," Anne Hudgens, dean of students at Colorado State University, said.

CSU also has launched a comprehensive tracking system to gather information about students who die by suicide. Among the items being tracked is students' GPA, their major, how they died and their year in school.

Hudgens said CSU is trying to find patterns on student deaths. Administrators so far have found little other than that the typical student suicide death is a male student who shoots himself. That finding mirrors the statistics in Larimer County, which last year also had a record number of suicide deaths. The majority of those deaths also were men who shot themselves.

Fifty-nine deaths in Larimer County were ruled suicide in 2009, compared to 36 in both 2008 and 2007, according to the coroner's office. That gives the county a suicide rate of 19.8 per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of about 11 deaths per 100,000.

So far this year, 11 people have committed suicide in Larimer County, compared to 10 at this time last year, according to the coroner. None of those were CSU students.

Hudgens said university administrators across the country have typically avoided talking publicly about suicide, for fear of highlighting their own statistics and becoming known as "Suicide U."

She said CSU has typically recorded one to three suicide deaths annually but saw the number jump to nine last year once officials began following up on all student deaths, regardless of whether they occurred on or off campus. Hudgens said it's unclear whether CSU is a statistical anomaly or if suicide numbers have always been that high and the university is only now getting solid information about them.

"We're just trying to understand this," she said.

As part of the university's efforts to better understand and tackle the situation, CSU has launched a pilot program where all students who come into the health center, regardless of their ailment, are screened for depression. The university has also hired a director of psychiatry, and a new psychiatric nurse-practitioner and is creating a formal suicide-prevention coordinator position.

Hudgens said the university believes a more formal, coordinated approach may better serve students. But she said it's also important that university employees, from professors to residence hall workers to coaches, be given training in how to recognize signs of depression and to intervene. It's a strategy called QPR - question, probe, refer - and helps empower friends, co-workers and colleagues to step in.

That's a similar strategy that county suicide-prevention experts are urging county residents to adopt.

"You don't have to be an expert to save someone's life," said Dana Lindsay, executive director of the Suicide Resource Center of Larimer County. The resource center was founded in 1989, at a time when Larimer County was experiencing a similarly high rate of suicide deaths. The rate dropped in the years after the center was founded but rose sharply last year.

The resource center, in partnership with the Larimer Center for Mental Health, is now creating additional support groups for people struggling with depression or bi-polar disorder. The mental health center also is putting together a countywide task force to address suicide, said spokeswoman Emily Dawson Petersen.

Petersen said admissions by the health center for mental-health problems are up 21 percent compared to this time last year, and admissions for substance abuse, which often masks underlying mental-health issues, are up 81 percent.

"We have begun a concerted effort to bring in multiple partners into a suicide-prevention campaign in Larimer County," she said.

(Copyright © 2010 Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)

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