For Michelle Hunt
, the cause is personal: She has lost both a dear friend and a family member to suicide. Since then, she’s turned her grief into action, becoming the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) 2015 Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year.
Shortly after arriving in Massachusetts to join the university as a lecturer in the Clinical Lab and Nutritional Sciences Department, Hunt saw an announcement for an Out of the Darkness Community Walk in Lowell, and signed up. Offered through the AFSP, the walks are held every fall in hundreds of communities across the nation to prevent suicide, raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding depression and other mental disorders.
“Nobody is immune from depression,” Hunt says. “We need to dispel the myth that mental illness and suicide can’t happen to the successful person, or the handsome, popular jock or the smart friend with straight A’s.”
For members of the university’s men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, the walk presented a chance for some preseason team bonding, community outreach and increased awareness of the second leading cause of death among college students.
“Our women’s lacrosse team had the wonderful chance to participate in this event – our whole team was there, including 30 teammates and three coaches,” says junior Kristy Robertson, a psychology and sociology major from Kingston, N.H.
The women’s lacrosse team smashed its $1,000 fundraising goal, gathering a total of $4,015, while the men’s team also raised $500.
Sean Tyrrell, a sophomore exercise physiology major from Calgary, Alberta, joined teammates from the men’s team as a way to give thanks and lend a hand.
“It really brought me down to earth. I realized how fortunate I’ve been in my life,” Tyrrell says. “In high school, I had some friends go through some tough times. I always supported them and made sure they had one good thing a day to keep them going. I believe that worked, and today, they’re doing great.”
The university is committed to supporting students’ mental health through its UMatter initiative
offering a comprehensive menu of training, workshops, seminars, information and outreach to recognize students who may be struggling, and to get them the help they need.
, associate dean of compliance and violence prevention, oversees the university’s mental health outreach.
“Suicide prevention is a community issue with community solutions,” Ciaraldi says. “By training our students, faculty and staff to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression and thoughts of suicide, we can intervene early on with students. We attempt to instill the idea that ‘brain health’ is as important as the health of the person from the neck down. By talking about these issues we help de-stigmatize mental health issues, allowing for more discussion and reporting of potential issues.”
From Hunt’s perspective, suicide prevention must be tackled on many fronts. First, she says, legislative change is a critical tool in bringing attention to mental health issues.
“I want people to understand that mental health is health, and to include mental health as part of overall health education curricula in public schools,” Hunt says.
Thanks to Hunt’s efforts, on April 6, Massachusetts will hold its inaugural day of advocacy for suicide prevention at the State House, an event co-sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention. A key issue to be discussed is the need for funding to mandate teacher education in suicide prevention.
Hunt says teachers – whom she calls mental health gatekeepers – should be equipped with tools that help them identify and respond to students at risk. She also calls for availability of mental health-based courses as part of the continuing education requirements for teachers’ licensure.
“There is evidence that right up until the act, people considering suicide are ambivalent. There is often a strong urge to live, so it’s imperative we intervene and help,” Hunt says.
“Suicide is an equal opportunity problem, so we’ve all got to be suicide alert.”
For more information on the university’s mental health support services and programs, go to www.uml.edu/umatter