Suicide Prevention at American University

Many non-profit organizations and student groups are making strides towards creating conversations about mental health awareness and suicide prevention. American University 2015-2016 Student Body President, Sasha Gilthorpe, offers insight on the unique ways student governments can bring those conversations to the forefront.

Saturday, September 10th, marked the thirteenth observance of World Suicide Prevention Day, created to bring public attention to suicide education and prevention. In a Presidential Proclamation, President Barack Obama outlined the importance of addressing these issues.

“On this day, we are reminded that help is available and that a brighter future lies ahead,”  President Obama wrote. “Let us honor the souls we have lost too soon and vow to do everything in our power to prevent suicide.”

Last year, CNN reported an increase in the number of college students who seriously considered suicide and that more than 1,000 college students commit suicide every year.

Gilthorpe believes that student governments are in a unique position to shed light on these issues and create positive change towards mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

“Any organization on campus can do awareness work,” Gilthorpe said. “Do it in a very creative way that only student government can do.”

Last year, American University’s student government partnered with PostSecretU to distribute over 2,000 postcards across their campus. Students were encouraged to anonymously disclose their inside thoughts on postcards. Printed on the postcards was information about the campus counseling center. After students wrote their messages, the postcards were collected and used to create an art exhibit. 

Gilthorpe said the project was successful in bringing together diverse student voices and helping students feel less alone.

“It’s important to create a culture where everyone feels like the are doing enough,” Gilthorpe said.

President Obama echoed these thoughts in his Proclamation by addressing how mental health stigmas are barriers for those seeking care. Gilthorpe believes student leaders can act proactively by focusing on university mental health policies in order to destigmatize the issue.

“Stigma happens with students, but there is also institutional stigma as well,” Gilthorpe said.

Gilthorpe suggested that paying close attention to disclosure and language is a strong start.

Sasha also believes it’s important for student government to establish itself as a strong voice on mental health initiatives, but to also understand that it is not the only voice. She added that uniting administration with mental health student groups to better understand their needs is important.

“Student leaders are the experts on their students,” Gilthorpe said. “They know what their students need and can reach students in a way others just cannot.”

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