Help is a phone call away

Chelsea Lane

For many Grand Valley State University students, college is an exciting chance at new friends, new experiences and newfound independence. But for some, the change in surroundings and the stresses of college life can become overwhelming.

Capt. Brandon DeHaan, assistant director of the GVSU Police Department, said the department often experiences an increase in calls regarding students with depression, suicidal ideation, suicidal intent or students attempting suicide around midterms and the holiday season. Last year, the GVPD responded to nine such calls during the midterm season. Since Aug. 22 of this year, the department has responded to two such calls.

Students experiencing suicidal ideation are those who seriously consider suicide and may talk about wanting to end their lives. The term “suicidal intent” means the student has gone so far as to create a specific suicide plan, which may then lead to a suicide attempt.

Warning signs of depression or suicidal ideation and intent include lethargy, giving away possessions, stockpiling medication, losing a loved one to suicide and talking about feelings of low self-worth.

In the history of the university, four students have committed suicide on campus, the most recent suicide occurring in 2005. Three of the students jumped off of the Little Mac Bridge and two died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

When responding to a suicide or depression-related call, the department partners closely with the GVSU Counseling Center to help assess the student’s mental state and determine the best course of action for the student’s well-being. The Counseling Center also trains officers on how to respond to a depression or suicide call.

“We kind of support each other,” said Barb Palombi, Counseling Center director. “They work from the legal point of view and we provide the mental health support that is needed. We have a good relationship.”

Together, the officers and counselors determine if the student is at immediate risk in his current environment. If the student is believed to be in life-threatening danger, they will be transported to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation or to receive medical attention. If the student does not voluntarily agree to undergo psychiatric evaluation, the court system can place the student under a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold, although both DeHaan and Palombi said this measure is less common than the student going to the hospital voluntarily.

A counselor will then follow up with students at their residences or at the hospital to check on how they are doing and discuss possible counseling options. In some cases, students are asked to sign a behavioral contract with the university. Behavioral contracts can include an agreement not to self-harm, a promise to attend counseling or bans from high-risk on-campus areas like the Little Mac Bridge.

“I think sometimes students see them as a punishment and they’re really not meant that way,” Palombi said of the behavioral contracts. “We want you to be successful and these kind of behaviors are preventing that.”

In most instances, the student is asked to attend counseling. The Counseling Center recently changed its walk-in hours in favor of 50 standing one-on-one appointments each week, which students can schedule over the phone or in person. Palombi said the changes were made to ensure each student received longer, quality sessions with a counselor instead of a walk-in session that may only last 20 minutes.

Students may schedule up to six one-on-one appointments, then are asked to join group therapy or a long-term process group if they would benefit from additional counseling. Palombi said for the average student using the counseling center, three or four visits is usually sufficient. Palombi also estimated that approximately 90 percent of in-crisis students are able to successfully complete their degrees without leaving the university.

“We’ve had a number of students in crisis,” she said. “Every year it seems to increase more… I really enjoy working with students and the fact that right now may not be the best time for the student (to seek treatment) doesn’t mean they’re not welcome.”

Palombi credited the increase in students using the Counseling Center to greater awareness of certain warning behaviors and the fact that college students often face an increase of stress coupled with a loss of familiar at-home support systems. However, Palombi also believes more students book appointments or voice concern to an at-risk friend because they feel GVSU will respond to the situation and offer proper support.

If a student feels a friend or roommate may be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, Palombi recommends asking the friend about any feelings or problems or contacting a resident assistant. Offering to help book a counseling appointment or accompany the friend to his first counseling session can also be helpful, she added.

Counseling center appointments can be scheduled either in person at the center itself, located inside the Student Services Building, or over the phone at 616-331-3215. In the event of an emergency or a student posing an immediate risk to themselves or others, dial the GVPD at 616-331-3255.

“When in doubt, call the police,” DeHaan said. “You’re not going to see us show up and be upset… Students should not hesitate to call whenever there is a concern.”

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