Counseling center aims to improve suicide prevention approaches

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CW / Hannah Saad

Jeffrey Kelly | @jeffkellyjr, Staff Reporter

With Tide Against Suicide, the University of Alabama’s Counseling Center is advocating for campus-wide engagement in suicide prevention. 

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health and national 2017 death statistics, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth and young adults between 10 to 34 years old.

“Tide Against Suicide is the University of Alabama’s new comprehensive approach to suicide prevention,” said Sarah Tarnakow, a UA staff therapist and suicide prevention coordinator.

Tide Against Suicide is based on an international initiative called Zero Suicide, Dr. Ruperto Perez, associate vice president of student health and wellbeing, said. The goal of the Zero Suicide framework is to shift from fragmented suicide care to treatment that is holistic, meaning it should address issues among those providing and receiving suicide care, as well as among the larger community.

“That international initiative began some sometime around 2016, and it’s based on the notion that suicide prevention needs to be aspirational and needs to really focus its attention at eliminating suicide versus reducing suicide,” Perez said. “It’s a different paradigm of how to think about suicide prevention.”

Perez said the University saw a need to “approach suicide prevention differently,” in a way that engaged the entire campus community.

“Suicide prevention is not just the responsibility for healthcare providers, counseling centers, counselors and psychiatrists, but really is the responsibility of everyone on campus,” he said. “Zero Suicide and Tide Against Suicide really embraces that notion that suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility.” 

Perez and Tarnakow said Tide Against Suicide wants to start collaborating and developing new initiatives with organizations on campus, while also bringing awareness to different resources available to students here on campus. 

“We want this to be kind of the umbrella for suicide prevention on campus,” Tarnakow said. “We’re finding that all these different groups are doing kind of different things for suicide prevention, and we’re not really talking to each other.”

Tarnakow stressed the importance that the initiative is student-led.

“If we were able to actually talk to each other and see how students are engaging and what was going on in these programs, we could collaborate a little bit better and just be more effective across the board,” she said. “We want students to know how to ask questions to their friends and how to not just ask the questions, but what signs to look for and also where to go from there.” 

Davis Silver, a UA junior majoring in marketing and psychology, got involved with Tide Against Suicide last year. 

“My experience so far has been quite incredible,” Silver said. “There has already been so much dialogue regarding mental illness and suicide, and so many people are opening up about experiences they’ve been through and kind of sharing their stories, which is honestly the best road to recovery.” 

Currently, the Counseling Center has 13 staff therapists, but only one psychologist and one psychiatrist on its clinical staff, according to its website. While the center sponsors several outreach programs, Tarnakow said Tide Against Suicide aims to give a platform for students to share their experiences through open dialogue in a way that hasn’t been done before at the University. 

“Our goal really is to bridge the gap between where the students are,” Tarnakow said. “We don’t want them falling into a gap and not being able to access therapists. So, if we’re training students to really reach out and check on their friends, then they’re able to connect better and they’re able to connect more consistently with us, so it’s just a more effective kind of approach.” 

To educate students, faculty and staff on suicide prevention, Tide Against Suicide hosts QPR training. The training is in-person and lasts about 90 minutes; it aims to teach three steps for preventing suicide: question, persuade and refer. During QPR, presenters share facts and statistics about suicide. They also talk about steps to take when having a discussion with someone who is considering suicide.

“QPR really is the gold standard nationally for suicide prevention, so we ask for everyone to be QPR trained on campus,” Perez said. 

Silver thinks the training is much-needed on campus.

“Mostly because a lot of us in our heads know that maybe we should be asking a friend if they’re suffering, but we never really know how to act upon it,” she said. “So, by going to QPR, it kind of solidifies what you already believe you should be doing and gives you the courage and motivation to be able to actually go out and do that in the future.”

Aside from QPR training, Tide Against Suicide offers a 30-minute online version of the training called Ask, Listen and Refer (ALR).

Tarnakow said she has had multiple students say that they were glad they went through training and that they used the information they learned. 

Besides QPRs and ALRs, Tide Against Suicide has hosted multiple events, including a yoga class, a movie screening of “Every Brilliant Thing,” an escape room, a cookout and the Out of the Darkness walk. 

“I think the Out of the Darkness walk is really powerful, especially because they give out beads of different colors, and you wear the beads in honor of how you’ve been related to suicide,” Silver said. “You walk around, and you see the beads hanging from people’s necks, and it kind of does give a face to mental illness.” 

If you are interested in becoming involved in Tide Against Suicide, Tarnakow recommends that students first go through QPR training. Then they are more than welcome to reach out to her at setarnakow@ua.edu. 

Tarnakow and Perez encourage students to bring their comprehensive initiative to other programs and organizations to help promote mental health and suicide awareness.