Suicide attempt leads to campus focus on prevention efforts

>>>CORRECTION: Steven Stepanek is the chair of Computer Information Technology, not the dean.

The CSUN community is addressing suicide prevention in the wake of a recent suicide attempt on campus.

A computer information technology major attempted suicide in Juniper Hall on Nov. 8.  Students and faculty have received communications from the university urging them to contact University Counseling Services if they were affected by the incident or need help.

“The most important thing counselors do is meet with people in pain and try to help them understand themselves a little bit better, to get them some coping strategies to be able to manage their life in ways that they’ll feel better,” said Dr. Mark Stevens, director of University Counseling Services at CSUN.

The incident is being addressed within the student’s department as well.

“I sent a note to [our] faculty to make sure they were aware. We set up a department meeting agenda item on troubled students,” said Steven Stepanek, dean of the Computer Information Technology (CIT) department and faculty senate president. “There are standard rules and procedures to get UCS involved. We encourage students to go see counselors.”

Stevens said suicidal thoughts can vary, ranging from a person saying things would be better if they were not alive to actually having a plan to hurt themselves.

“Wherever someone is on that continuum, we take them 100 percent serious because no matter what, we know they’re in pain,” Stevens said.

Stevens said the key is that most people do not want to really kill themselves, but only feel better. That is what counselors focus on – the part that wants to feel better.

“There’s a very interesting study done on folks that have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “There are a number of people that have survived and been interviewed about what they were thinking when they were in the air and they all thought, ‘I wish I didn’t do this.’”

Stevens encourages students to reach out to peers they feel may be in trouble.

“It’s okay to ask the question,” he said. “Being direct is really important. You’ll see their reaction. Then you move into the next frame, which is asking what kind of support have gotten, and asking if you can help them get the help they need. If it gets to a point where you believe that person is really in danger of hurting themselves and it’s immediate, you want to call the police services or 911. If you believe that it’s not immediate, but you’re not sure how to get through to them, call counseling services. But don’t hold it in yourself when you’re worried about someone else.”

The holiday season allows for a higher suicide rate despite the general societal mood of the season being joyful. Stevens said more marginalized groups tend to be more at risk as well, including returning veterans and those from the LGBTQ community.

The Veterans Resource Center opened this semester in order to help returning veterans and offer services to them.

“The Veterans Resource Center provides referrals, resources, and services to student veterans (and) the VRC also has a peer mentors program designed to help students as they transition to CSUN and throughout their time here,” said Monteigne Staats-Long, coordinator at the VRC.

Staats-Long said the peer mentors are knowledgeable about departments on campus and organizations around the LA area that provide counseling and mental health care to veterans.

The Blues Project is another on-campus program that provides depression services and suicide prevention through UCS.

Vaheh Hartoonian, assistant coordinator for peer programs and co-facilitator for the Blues Project, said students are trained every semester as peer educators to give presentations about depression and suicide in classrooms across campus.

“Through these presentations we aim to dispel common myths and misconceptions about depression and suicide, educate audiences about warning signs, and inform people about on-campus and local resources that are available to them,” he said.

Hartoonian said the goal of the Blues Project is to give students information about the topics and resources.

William Watkins, vice president for Student affairs, knows that students face hardship that can lead to distress and potentially thoughts of suicide.

“College students face a host of stress producing situations and challenges that can devolve into mental health challenges that produce life-threatening behaviors. Overcoming such conditions is not a simple task but there are resources that are available and, thankfully, most students, at least by my observation, make progress and do not undertake acts of suicide,” Watkins said.

Watkins said students may feel doubts on whether or not they had done enough to prevent or be aware of peers in trouble.

“There is always that sense of, ‘What could I have done to help?’” he said. “For those who may not have known the student involved, I think there is a bit of self-reflection that looks inward at how well their own stresses are being handled. For some, experiences like this cause individuals to re-double their sense of care about the well-being of others around them and to manifest that care by reaching out to provide support where needed. No matter the problem, we want students to have hope and choose life.”

Stepanek agrees students should be able to talk to faculty comfortably and seek help.

“When somebody comes to CSUN, I can understand feeling intimidated,” Stepanek said.  “Come and talk to us, we can adjust the load.  Students need to come and talk to us.  There are ways to help.  If they’re part of a specialty group, they have people and services that can help.”