Campus News

September 26, 2011

Emory Cares 4 U expands suicide prevention outreach

A university-wide suicide prevention effort empowers its members to recognize and respond to those in need.

Under the Emory Cares 4 U program, faculty, staff and students are being trained as "gatekeepers" to identify early warning signs, question at-risk individuals about suicide plans and persuade them to get help.

More than 1,000 campus community members have participated in the trainings over the last two years. This spring, the training will be offered to all School of Medicine students.

"These volunteers are the front-line tripwires for recognizing students who might be in trouble," explains Mark McLeod, director of the Student Counseling Center.

Funded by a three-year federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Emory Cares 4 U program underscores the University's commitment to promoting student health and mental well-being, reducing the risk for stress, depression and suicide.

In fall 2008, Emory enacted a mental health and counseling fee on the recommendation of the University's Mental Health Task Force, appointed by President Jim Wagner to prioritize the mental health and wellness needs deemed most critical to the community. The initiative grew from an appeal by Molly Harrington '05C, who, as an undergraduate, recognized the need for candid discussion about mental health challenges on campus. 

Resources referrals rise

Five percent of Emory students reported seriously considering suicide and 0.9 percent of students attempted suicide over a 12-month period, according to 2008 National College Health Assessment data, the most recent year available. While those statistics are slightly lower than the national average, Emory's Student Counseling Center has seen a steady increase in referrals year after year, in part due to increased awareness.

During a recent QPR gatekeeper training session – QPR stands for question, persuade and refer –  eight faculty members learned verbal and behavioral clues to help determine if an individual is seriously contemplating suicide.

Actions, such as giving away prized possessions and unexplained anger and aggression, can signal problems. Most importantly, participants were encouraged to ask the tough question: "Are you considering taking your own life?," and refer students to a wealth of resources, including the Student Counseling Center, the Psychological Center, the Office of Residence Life and Housing and the Outpatient Psychotherapy Training Program through the psychiatry department and School of Medicine.

"Now that I am aware of all the resources available, I feel much more confident in helping students," says training participant Liz Cooper, a Woodruff librarian who had three friends commit suicide.

Overcoming barriers

Such direct action counteracts the "bystander effect," where people don't offer help to those at risk because they may feel uncomfortable or don't want to accept responsibility, says Emory Cares 4 U Program Director Nadine Kaslow.

 "We're trying to make the training specific for different student communities," notes Kaslow, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and chief psychologist for Grady Health System.

Athletes, for instance, may feel embarrassed to admit suicidal thoughts, while international students fear cultural stigmas.

Emory Cares 4 U has partnered with the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services, the International Student and Scholar Services and several student groups to offer culturally relevant videos on the new Emory Cares 4 U website. The site also features stories of those whose loved ones committed suicide. Community members wanting to share their stories are encouraged to email Kaslow at

Later this fall, the website will offer an anonymous stress and depression survey to help students identify at-risk behaviors. Already, the screening tool has been distributed to Laney Graduate School students and all professional school students are expected to receive it by the end of this year.  After completing the survey, students have the option of talking to a therapist confidentially, either by email or by phone.

The older student population is often overlooked, notes Kaslow, yet nationally they have higher suicide rates than undergraduates. Next semester, Emory Cares 4 U hopes to offer an interdisciplinary course in suicide prevention through the Rollins School of Public Health.                                                                   

The University also has partnered with Behavioral Health Link to increase the coverage already provided in the evening by the Emory student-run Helpline at 404-727-HELP, offering round-the-clock service.

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