New cross-campus framework puts suicide prevention in focus

Emphasis on prevention, intervention and postvention


Rachelle McGrath holding a copy of the framework and yellow ribbons.

Rachelle McGrath, director, Wellness Services, chaired the steering committee that developed the framework.


The Mount Royal University community is moving together to proactively address suicide through a new suicide prevention framework.

As we mark World Suicide Prevention Day Sept. 10, it is worth noting that suicide is a significant cause of premature death in Canada that affects individuals, families, friends, schools and communities. It is estimated that each death by suicide significantly impacts six to 20 people while moderately affecting up to 135.

“This framework integrates our institutional values with policies, programs and initiatives while fostering open conversations about mental health and suicide prevention for all campus members,” says Dr. Tim Rahilly, PhD, president and vice-chancellor at Mount Royal. “The mental health of our community and the success of the university are interconnected. I am encouraged that we are taking this step together.”

As a post-secondary institution that has adopted the Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities & Colleges, the University stresses the importance of health and wellbeing of campus members.

“Mount Royal has a strong history of supporting mental health,” says Rachelle McGrath, director, Wellness Services, who chaired the steering committee that developed the framework. “We know that suicide is a complex occurence that necessitates a specific focus. At the same time, we were seeing increasing numbers of our students through self-reported survey data indicate that they were seriously considering suicide.”

Data from 2019, for example, shows that 19 per cent — or about one in five — of Mount Royal students said they seriously considered suicide within the past 12 months.

“That is a really high number.  At the same time, we also know that there are lots of campus members who want to reach out to others, want to support them, but might not always know how,” McGrath says, adding that the rationale for developing the framework was an opportunity to look in-depth at suicide from multiple angles and at many levels.

Intended users of the framework include, but are not limited to: departments and academic units, leaders across campus, and students, including the Students Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU).

The framework’s 52 recommendations over a one- to five-year timeframe include measures to:

  • Strengthen and expand policy, supports, and services: Recommendations for how policies, supports and services related to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention can be improved, expanded or developed.
  • Foster a thriving campus environment: Larger campus community-wide actions that support a campus that is open, welcoming and inclusive to mental health and suicide prevention.
  • Increase community awareness and capacity: Initiatives to increase awareness of suicide prevention, intervention and postvention, and to increase the capacity of campus members to take action in these areas.
  • Develop sustainable framework implementation and evaluation: Mechanisms to ensure that the recommendations and action items of the framework are effectively implemented and routinely evaluated to measure progress.

Suicide prevention, intervention and postvention are continually evolving, and this framework will continue to adapt to the landscape and emerging evidence. Annual updates to the campus community will be shared to foster transparency and accountability.

To comprehensively approach the framework, the steering committee had to be cross-institutional, trauma-informed and focus on considerations for all campus members, including students, faculty, staff and management. The committee consulted with a wide variety of campus members to ensure the framework would meet the needs and be relevant to the University community. Mount Royal is not alone in this focus as many campuses in Canada and elsewhere look to develop or implement similar frameworks.

“What was important to us was really looking across a socio-ecological model,” McGrath notes. “It’s absolutely important to focus at the individual level in terms of knowledge and skills, but we also need to look at the culture of the institution and its structures, policies and procedures. When you put those together, that’s when you have a strong impact because you’re coming at things from all levels.”

As part of its work, the committee looked into existing research and at other organizations, but wanted to hear from students and employees about their experiences and concerns. A series of consultation sessions gathered ideas, and campus members were able to give feedback on a draft of the framework. Suggestions were carefully considered and many were integrated into the final document.

“As a steering committee we sat down and went through that feedback line by line to say, ‘OK, this is what one of our campus members is saying: how could we integrate that, what would that look like.’ We really appreciated and took into consideration all that feedback.”

Biology student Daniel Major was also on the committee. Through Wellness Services, Major became a facilitator with the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Inquiring Minds Program and has helped students with their mental health through workshops, classroom presentations and peer support.

 

"The mental health of our community and the success of the university are interconnected. I am encouraged that we are taking this step together."

Dr. Tim Rahilly, PhD

 

“My involvement in post-secondary mental-health advocacy is due to the experience I've had as a student with poor mental health. Suicide in particular is a topic shrouded by stigma. A campus community that exhibits affirmative action and intentional preparedness in suicide prevention, intervention and postvention can better respond to persons at risk, enhance access to resources and ultimately, save lives,” Major says.

“While the framework is an important first step, it contains a number of recommendations which must be addressed over many years to come. It has been a true privilege to have been involved in the early stages of transforming our campus community to better consider how we prevent and respond to suicide.”

Mount Royal graduate Camille Rhose Tablaca (Policy Studies) also sat on the steering committee as VP Student affairs for SAMRU. She emphasizes the importance of structure in helping prevent suicide.

“Students need to know what is available for them in terms of support,” Tablaca says. “The framework not only emphasizes the institution’s commitment to this topic for the community, but keeps them accountable to the students.”

While stigma around even discussing suicide still exists, that dynamic is evolving for the better.

“We’re getting to a place where hopefully we will see less stigma around having conversations related to suicide,” McGrath says. “What came across quite strongly was individuals wanting to reach out and wanting to help, but not knowing exactly how to go about doing that, being afraid of saying the wrong thing. That was something we heard time and time again: ‘I don’t want to make it worse, I don’t really know what to say.’ "

That fear is itself a barrier to engaging in those conversations. The hope is the framework can provide tools and knowledge and a role that everyone can play in sucide prevention.

“We’re not expecting everyone on campus to be an expert in this,” McGrath emphasizes, “but to have some basic tools and information so that we can help open pathways to individuals if they need them.”

On Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, Wellness Services will have information available on the Wellness web page and is making yellow ribbons available in the Healthy Campus Team office (I151) as well as hung on bulletin boards around campus.

Sept. 9, 2021 — Peter Glenn

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