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.