Partners in Prevention Helps Missouri Students through Mental Health Struggles

Here’s a daunting statistic about Missouri’s college students and mental health: one in four college students in the state have had suicidal thoughts in the past year. Upon hearing that, parents may turn a blind eye and say, “Yeah, but that’s not my kid.”

But the fact of the matter is, it could very well be your kid, which is why it is vital for college campuses to have easy access to the diverse mental health resources students need.

Enter Missouri’s Partners in Prevention Program, founded more than 20 years ago as an organization that addressed the negative consequences of alcohol use in college students. Today, Partners in Prevention has transformed into a coalition of 24 colleges and universities across the state that are dedicated to addressing healthier and safer campus environments. Partners in Prevention is funded by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety and Traffic Division. With grants, Partners in Prevention provides campuses technical assistance to analyze the current landscape and determine what each campus needs for its students. No campus is the same.

Joan Masters is the project director for Partners in Prevention and has been with the organization since its inception. “The issues students are facing on campus are very complex,” she says, “and they are experiencing trauma and serious mental health struggles (which could have come forth pre-college) that could lead to suicide.” 

According to Partners in Prevention, 47 percent of Missouri college students report having suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives; 25 percent report having suicidal thoughts in the past year, with 2.1 percent attempting suicide. Fifty-eight percent of students who report having suicidal thoughts or who attempted suicide in the past year have not sought assistance. Students are also experiencing sexual violence on campus and are witnessing perpetrated acts of violence, but they don’t necessarily have the tools and knowledge yet to intervene in those situations.

“What we know is that on every campus, there are students experiencing trauma and struggling with mental health,” says Joan. “They are self-medicating with substances that are either illegal or not prescribed by their doctor, which is not solving their problems.”

For parents, it is so important to prioritize kids’ mental health just as you would physical health, and normalize seeking out help. Parents must look out for and care about all aspects of their child’s mental health in order to properly address suicide prevention. This includes whether or not their child is interacting with substances, if they are caring for their bodies, and if they know how to access and ask for services before they get to college. Joan encourages parents to equip their child with tools such as the ability to recognize if something is physically or mentally not right with their body, when to reach out and get help, how to resist self-medicating, and how to advocate for themselves.

“With these tools, if they are truly at the point of suicidal thoughts or actions, they will know to ask for help before suicide occurs,” says Joan.

What else can parents do to be present and willing to help? Partners in Prevention provides guidance on how to create three critical conversations with their college students about alcohol use, mental health and drugs. Conversations, not lectures, are key to finding out how they feel.

“If you have an 18-year-old going off to college in a few months, and you’ve never spoken to them about mental health, it’s never too late,” Joan reinforces. “Talk about your expectations and what you hope for them. Most importantly, when you talk about why their mental health is important, you aren’t just preparing them for college, but you are preparing them to be an adult. We do not want them to have low knowledge or high stigma around mental health, leading them to not practice those important life skills in college and fail.”

“College is an incredibly supportive environment, and attending college and living in the community is a protective factor against suicide,” Joan continues. “The more we increase those protective factors, and increase our child’s knowledge and willingness to receive help, the more likely kids will gain skills to successfully navigate through life.”

Over Joan’s two-decade career at Partners in Prevention, a lot has changed. She says less students are using alcohol, instead choosing to live a sober lifestyle, regardless of age. More students are coming to campuses appropriately medicated. However, marijuana use has risen over the past decade, with students believing cannabis is a cure for something and not understanding how it affects them. There are also more students than ever who have experienced sexual trauma, and they are coming to campus needing treatment for bigger issues than college counselors can address. With all of these very complex issues, students are finding it difficult to navigate through, which makes it increasingly important for parents to cultivate a safe space for their child to understand their mental health and to get help.

“Normalize mental health services and talk to your kids about what they are feeling and what they are thinking about, and ask if they need assistance with mental health care,” Joan says. “Create an ‘In this house, we seek therapy’ environment to take down the stigmas.”

If you find that your child is really struggling, let them know that it is OK to say that they need a time out and to consider taking a semester off to work on their mental health, de-stress, and get better. After all, they are what always matters.

Missouri’s Partners in Prevention program is the go-to resource for college campuses in Missouri. To access resources such as brochures, recommended readings, fact sheets and the program’s blog, visit www.mopip.org. Partners in Prevention also helps lead “Ask. Listen. Refer.” a statewide online suicide prevention training program created for campuses throughout Missouri. To get started, take the 20-minute survey at www.asklistenrefer.org.

Suicide Prevention for College Students

College represents so much to a student — the opportunity to start a fresh chapter in their lives and work toward their professional and personal goals. But it also represents a significant shift in lifestyle and habits; it is a period of transitions and lots of change. While some students can weather through the difficult times, there is no doubt these challenges have the potential to become too much.

A supportive group console a woman who is facing away from the camera, she looks distraught.The New York Times took a look at the pressure college students put on themselves and found that students who excelled in high school expect to do the same in college. While this is a common aspiration, it can cause them struggle. Students may worry about larger class sizes, more challenging curriculum, deadlines and difficulty managing time, as well as finances, student loans, and keeping up with extracurricular activities or a job. Combined, this can have profound effects on mental health… and in the worst-case scenario, can lead to the possibility of suicidal thoughts.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-43 in the U.S. This daunting statistic leads to so many other questions too. NAMI states, “A 2018 study found that at any time within the last 12 months, 41% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function and 62% felt overwhelming anxiety.” It is also estimated that one in five college students has a substance use disorder. 

Mental Health America of California says many forms of mental illness first emerge during the college years, often coinciding with young adults’ first time living away from home. In fact, more than one in three college students have reported that they have been “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

Mental Health America of California goes even further in their findings about college students and mental health. According to the 2016 Annual Report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s (CCMH), there was a 5% increase in college enrollment, nationwide, accompanied by 30% increase in demand for mental health services, between 2010 and 2016. And of those students in treatment at college counseling centers, approximately:

  • One in two have received psychological services in the past five years
  • One in 10 have been psychiatrically hospitalized before
  • One in four report engaging in self-injurious behavior, such as cutting
  • One in three have seriously considered suicidth

What Families, Students, and Colleges Can Do

A woman comforting her friend with a hug.Suicides are preventable. Improving mental health and trauma literacy is a critical step in decreasing suicides and recognizing the warning signs to get people the help they need as early as possible. Students, parents and family, and colleges and community organizations can make a commitment to enhance their mental health literacy by using any of the following resources provided in Missouri.

Training programs like Mental Health First Aid Missouri, Missouri Suicide Prevention Network, Missouri Ask, Listen, Refer or Missouri Department of Mental Health Trauma Informed Care E-Learning Course are available to the public and can be taken by anyone with access to internet.

NAMI outlines these actions that can be taken by students, parents and family members, and colleges to lower the risk of suicide: 

  • Address concerns as soon as possible. Depression and teenage angst look similar, but if you think something is indeed wrong, be up front with your child about it — this will increase the likelihood of early recognition and diagnosis of an issue and improve treatment outcomes.
  • Encourage your child to talk about their mental health challenges with a counselor, family member or trusted adult. Fear of overreaction is a reason why some students may not feel comfortable speaking to parents. Be supportive and receptive to these discussions and how they can help get treatment.
  • If students have a pre-existing mental health condition, help create a college transition plan that outlines treatment continuity.
  • Parents and family members should be in contact with the campus counseling center if HIPAA and FERPA waivers are obtained from the student.
  • Drive home the importance of self-care and where to go on campus for emotional and academic support. Connect with fellow parents on college parent portals, Facebook groups and other online forums to discuss ways to get involved and advocate for resources and programming that address student mental health.
  • Discuss stories in news and media to have preventative conversations with your child about mental health, overdose or suicide deaths. They probably have thoughts, opinions and concerns they would share with you if asked. You may learn more about your child’s own mental health or substance use in the process.
  • Make a commitment to learn about mental health literacy to have a better understanding of what to look for and how to talk about mental health, suicide and substance use.
  • Students should be aware of and know how to recognize signs of mental health issues in order to help their fellow classmates or get help themselves. Help could include practicing self-care and being supportive to friends and classmates.
  • Talk, talk, talk! Students are more likely to talk with another student about their distress rather than with an older adult. Students should utilize on-campus student mental health resources and advocate for support and programming on campus.
  • Improve your mental health and trauma literacy by taking courses to learn more about mental health, suicide and trauma recovery. Resources may be available on campus, through the campus course catalog or through online resources.
  • Identify students who are at risk for mental health illness, alcohol abuse and drug use problems. Colleges should provide assistance to support the transition from high school to college.
  • Support social connections on campus that are aimed at promoting inclusivity between students who feel disconnected or isolated and students who are traditionally marginalized or at higher risk.
  • Foster an environment that makes it easy and comfortable for students to ask for help. There should be easy access to mental health resources and support.
  • Providing on-campus access to substance abuse and mental health services is vital.
  • Create an institutional response to student suicide, death or emergency. Crisis management procedures, such as access to emergency services or local and national crisis resources, should always be in place.
  • Support education around vital life skills, such as how social- emotional and physical wellness can impact academic success.
  • Provide training opportunities for faculty and staff to learn more about mental health, suicide prevention and trauma sensitive schools.

Seeking Help

Make sure your child knows that help is just a call or text away. Mental health support and crisis intervention are always available with the 988 Crisis Line or Crisis Text Line. Just text MO SAFE” or HOME” to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S. to speak with a trained crisis counselor via a secure online platform. Through texting, the counselor can help talk through issues, including financial-related stress. The Crisis Text Line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

HappierU also has many resources to help. Visit the Show Me Hope Crisis Counseling Program’s YouTube page or short videos providing tips, advice and exercises anyone can do to manage and reduce stress, promote positive personal growth, and help you live a happier life using science-based methods.