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Suicide prevention and awareness program ‘You Belong’ calls students to action

An illustration of a two people cupping the hands together.

To connect social work students to on-campus resources and employees at Counseling and Disability Services, the BYU–Hawaii Social Work Student Association (SWSA) hosted a suicide prevention and awareness presentation on Feb. 20 in the Multi-Purpose Center.

“One of my intentions with this suicide prevention [presentation] was to bridge the gap between students and the Counseling Center,” said SWSA Vice President for Services Destine Fatu, a senior from Waianae majoring in social work, who took charge in organizing the event.

The presentation, entitled “You Belong,” was given by Elizabeth Rago, a counselor for Counseling Services and a licensed clinical social worker. She shared news of a university mental health services director in Pennsylvania who died by suicide about six months ago. According to Rago, dentists and doctors are one of the highest at-risk populations for suicide.

“People you think are wildly successful and are wildly put-together also have feelings of loss or emptiness,” stated Rago. She went on to share that she, too, had these thoughts for about six months after her mom passed away a couple of years ago.

“[These thoughts] are intrusive. They come to anybody. They’re unexpected, and they’re normal,” explained Rago. “The most important part to remember is that these thoughts of suicide are temporary. They don’t last, and with help and support, you can end up living a very fulfilling, satisfying life.”

Rago further clarified there is a small population where suicidal thoughts are not temporary, usually due to severe trauma.

Fatu said the event was geared towards students of social work and was pleased to see it held informational value for both her and her classmates.

“As future social workers, or social workers in general, we don’t realize we actually do need extra help,” said Fatu. “Just as students, in general, do too. Suicidal ideation is prevalent in a lot of people’s lives, even people whose lives you think are perfect. They aren’t always [perfect].”

The presentation included an initiative called ACT, which stands for Aware, Care, and Tell. According to Debbie Hippolite Wright, vice president for Student Development & Services, ACT was developed by former BYUH counselor Leilani Auna, who worked with programs within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that also used this model.

“Aware” calls on students to know the statistics and warning signs of suicidal thoughts. Included in the presentation was the current statistic that more than 1,000 suicides occur yearly on college campuses across the United States.

Counseling and Disability Services intern Kyle Mullins, a senior from Indiana majoring in psychology, helped with the presentation and emphasized those statistics covered only the United States, but not the majority of countries represented on campus.

Jackie Morris, a junior from Virginia majoring in social work, said she attended the event after she heard it announced in one of her classes. Morris explained when talking about the overall BYUH attitude toward suicide prevention, there are two main components.

“[First, there is] a collective group of very diverse people with a bunch of cultures who see mental health as kind of a taboo thing to talk about. [Second], the campus … itself and its resources,” said Morris.

“I think there are actually some pretty good resources out here, but as far as the students feeling comfortable and feeling like they [could reach] out is a completely different story.”

The “Care” in ACT covers the topic of empathy versus sympathy and how to react when someone expresses suicidal thoughts or exhibits warning signs.

One of the slides in the presentation covered specific incidents that might precipitate a suicide attempt, including change in environment, loss of relationships, academic or social pressure, lack of coping skills and so on.

In discussing coping skills, one student mentioned self-care, which Rago then probed for specific examples. After answers such as binge-watching TV shows and participating in things people like to do, Rago expanded the definition of self-care.

“I would also offer an alternative view of what self-care is. Sometimes, self-care is to let go of toxic friends. We don’t necessarily like to do that, but it’s caring for yourself, right?”

Other examples she gave included doing homework instead of procrastinating, attending therapy despite fears of what others might think and working two jobs to get out of credit card debt.

“Self-care can be things that you enjoy, like getting a pedicure or reading a good book or binge-watching [TV shows],” said Rago. “It could definitely be that, but there are also deeper and more meaningful ways to care for yourself, and again, that means doing the hard things.”

Fatu added there is a local crisis textline. Students in need can text “ALOHA” to 741741, and real people will respond via text to help with the situation.

The presentation also included what to avoid during a crisis or when confronted with someone who may be having suicidal thoughts. Some of these included trying to cheer the person up, telling the person to snap out of it, assuming the situation will take care of itself and being sworn to secrecy.

“We just don’t talk about these things at all, but I love how the campus tries to make awareness of it,” said Morris. “You don’t have to be a part of this lack of awareness. You don’t have to not talk about it … [I think] the campus itself is doing great. It’s just the students. We have to get over our mental stigma.”

The T in ACT stands for “Tell” and refers to a variety of resources students can turn to depending on the severity of the situation:

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or harming themselves or others, please call Counseling Services at (808) 675-3518. If you would prefer to talk to a counselor in person, you are welcome to walk in for immediate assistance. Counseling Services is open Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. For after-hours support, call the BYUH Department of Public Safety at (808) 675-3911. For emergencies, you may call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

National Suicide Hotline (open 24/7): 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 911 for emergency situations.