Grant Aims to Boost Suicide Prevention Programs for UM Students

Lourdes Illa, M.D., and Marisa Echenique, Psy.D., are on a mission to make suicide prevention everybody’s responsibility on campus. With their clinical training, they understand the desperation that leads to the act, and they know that classmates, teachers and others sometimes notice red flags, but are unsure how to intervene and curtail the third leading cause of death among people ages 14 to 24.

Now, armed with a three-year, $295,653 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Illa, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and training director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Echenique, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, are launching “UM Unites to Prevent College Suicide by Transforming Campus Culture.”

Based on the Coral Gables campus but aimed at undergraduate and graduate students across the University, UM Unites is designed to increase awareness of the suicide risk among college students, the warning signs, and, most importantly, the availability of resources to help and the need to intervene.

“You don’t have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist to be a proactive part of this effort,” said Illa. “Whether you are a student, professor or staff, you might pick up that there’s something wrong with a student on campus, but you may not know how to help. UM Unites will provide education and training to increase suicide awareness and prevention activities on campus.”

In collaboration with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the project also will include an anonymous, web-based, interactive screening program designed to identify students who may benefit from mental health services and link them to care.

The SAMHSA grant is a first for UM, one of 21 U.S. colleges and universities awarded a total of $6.2 million to assist efforts to prevent suicide and enhance mental health services for students in crisis.

Since receiving the grant, Illa and Echenique have met with representatives of the Student Counseling Center, various other student organizations and campus offices committed to student well-being and are collaborating with LifegUards, the University’s suicide prevention outreach program.

The project’s executive advisor, Charles B. Nemeroff, M.D., Ph.D., Leonard M. Miller Professor Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who recently assumed the presidency of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Florida Southeast Division, is also raising suicide awareness in the university community. For the second year in a row, he and Miller School Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., led the Miami-Dade County Out of the Darkness 5K walk on the Coral Gables campus. UM Unites took part in the event, which was designed to raise awareness of suicide and strengthen efforts to prevent it.

Illa said she and her colleagues are confident UM Unites’ expanded programs and new tools will help save lives. She noted, for example, that the online, interactive screening program has proved effective at engaging people who are reluctant to make initial contact for help. The program also ensures more eyes and ears are paying attention to the well-being of students.

“In working with UM students, I have come across many individuals with personal stories of how suicide has impacted their lives, and they consistently demonstrate an eagerness to become involved and learn more about helping those at risk,” said Echenique.

Added Illa, “One of the main components of the grant is to change the culture surrounding suicide. Suicide prevention is everybody’s responsibility.”

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