Nov. 12, 2020

UCalgary launches suicide prevention framework

Systemic approach meant to identify gaps and ensure students receive help they need
UCalgary campus
UCalgary campus

Forced isolation, job loss, rising prices, mounting stress — a mental health crisis is unfolding globally, and the most vulnerable are the hardest hit. As young adults face pressures like never before, the University of Calgary is launching a new Suicide Awareness and Prevention Framework to provide the help struggling students need most.

“The University of Calgary’s mission is to prevent suicide,” says Debbie Bruckner, senior director, student wellness, access and support. “The only acceptable goal for us is zero suicide.”

Based on the 2019 National College Health Assessment data from University of Calgary students:

  • 27 per cent of students surveyed reported having been diagnosed or treated for a mental health condition.
  • Within the 12 months prior to the survey, 16 per cent of students reported that they seriously considered suicide and 2.8 per cent reported that they attempted suicide.
  • The majority of students reported feeling overwhelmed (88 per cent), very lonely (70 per cent), anxious (69 per cent), or very sad (76 per cent) at some point within the last 12 months.

These survey results are from before UCalgary students faced new pressures from the pandemic.

“Suicide deaths for individuals under the care of health systems are preventable," says Bruckner. "Through our innovative Suicide Awareness and Prevention Framework, we are focused on reducing risk, ensuring effective suicide prevention and intervention strategies and promoting healing and compassion across our campus."

This student-focused framework is groundbreaking in many ways. The University of Calgary is leading the way in acknowledging suicide isn’t just a result of mental illness. It can also come about in healthy people who are overwhelmed, says UCalgary psychiatry professor Dr. Chris Wilkes. 

“Suicide is a serious public health concern and a leading cause of death in young adults 18 to 25 years old," says Wilkes. "Worldwide, someone dies from suicide every 40 seconds, up to 800,000 deaths annually.

“At the University of Calgary, we're aiming for zero suicides through a holistic approach that includes promoting awareness through various trainings, working with community agencies, increasing connection and hope, and through evidence-based psycho-education programs. You've heard of CPR. We will use QPR with our campus community – empathetic questions, persuade to seek life and refer to help,” he says.

Individuals at risk of suicide often fall through the cracks in a sometimes fragmented and distracted health-care and mental health system.

Under this framework, developed with students and community agencies, the University of Calgary will facilitate a more systematic approach to quality improvement in these settings which is both available and necessary in both healthcare, community mental health, and post-secondary institutions.

The UCalgary Suicide Awareness and Prevention Framework includes an action plan that will:

  • lead a university-wide, safety-orientated culture committed to suicide prevention, reducing stigma and promoting a community of caring
  • educate the campus community to provide competent, confident, and caring supports to encourage help-seeking and help-offering
  • identify students with suicide risk via skills training, online resources, and within Student Wellness Services’ initial screening and assessment
  • reach out and engage students through supportive outreach
  • assess and guide through triaging students at-risk of suicide, co-develop a safety plan/case management plan, or transition to community
  • transition students to treatment and return to campus. Engage Alberta Health Services and community-based resources to develop transition pathways between university and the community so students can be treated in the community and then smoothly transitioned back to university
  • improve and communicate policies, processes, and procedures through continuous quality improvement, identifying clear measures for evaluation

UCalgary’s suicide prevention framework is based on the Campus Mental Health Strategy’s vision to create a caring campus community and the Zero Suicide Framework established by the Zero Suicide Institute and the Suicide Prevention Resource Centre, says Dr. Andrew Szeto, PhD, director of the Campus Mental Health Strategy.

“The time for action to prevent suicides must be now,” says Szeto. “Our students are facing pressures and stresses unlike ever before. Suicides can be prevented, but only when students are able to find adequate help. We’re committed to providing the help they need, when they need it most.”

Staff Wellness leads a number of programs, resources and services to help promote, support, and sustain the health and wellness of faculty and staff at UCalgary.

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