Imagine the entire student body of a small liberal arts college — 1,300 undergraduates — lost to suicide. Now imagine that same tragic loss taking place not just once, but year after year.
That’s the sobering reality facing higher education: suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students across the nation, with an average of 1,300 young men and women between the ages of 18 and 22 taking their lives each year. This reality, coupled with the sense of unease that has grown on campuses in the wake of high-profile murder-suicides like the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which a student killed 32 people and wounded many others before taking his own life, have strengthened the bond between colleges and counseling centers committed to turning the tide of such tragedies.
Here at UNH, Counseling Center director David M.J. Cross and assistant director of outreach and assessment Sean Moundas are leading efforts to increase prevention programming with an innovative application that engages students, faculty and staff. Called Kognito, the program is an interactive, avatar-based online training program that supplements the face-to-face work the Counseling Center, Behavioral Intervention Team and UNH’s diverse suicide prevention committee are doing on campus.
Through a variety of role-play scenarios, Kognito helps students and faculty learn the signs that a student may be at risk of serious psychological distress. Kognito also offers tips on how to help individuals and guidance on when to refer them to the Counseling Center.
In the At Risk module for faculty and staff, for example, participants meet a professor who has identified five students in his class about whom he has specific concerns. Participants “interview” these avatar students, examine indicators each student might be at risk and choose the most appropriate responses for each student’s needs.
Susan Horne, visiting assistant professor of decision sciences at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, has offered Kognito training modules as extra credit to students in each of the 16 courses she has taught over the past four semesters. “I thought it might be helpful to students at some point in their lives to have had this training while in college,” she says. “I never dreamed that it would directly impact the lives of students while they were still at UNH.”
“Putting this training in front of students has reaped tremendous benefits if even one person was helped."
However, she explains, that is exactly what happened. “Some students have self-identified as needing counseling and other mental health services while taking the training. Others were able to recognize the need to intervene with close friends who were in life-threatening situations,” she says.
Last year, Moundas secured a three-year grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to expand the use of the At Risk training module, which has been offered at UNH since 2013. Thanks to the grant, members of the UNH community now have access to additional programs that address specific populations through Kognito’s Veterans on Campus, LGBTQ on Campus and Family of Heroes modules.
Amid these ongoing efforts, students have formed a new group, Stop the Stigma: Let’s Talk, aimed at fighting the secrecy and shame too often associated with mental illness. Looking to the year ahead, Moundas says that in addition to increased participation in Kognito by faculty, staff and students alike, “I’d love to see the student group thrive.” Cross adds that he hopes Kognito will result in “more eyes and ears in our community” knowing what the signs are and who to call if a student is at risk.
As Horne sums it up, “Putting this training in front of students has reaped tremendous benefits if even one person was helped. It is perhaps the most important impact I have had in my three years at UNH.”
The Counseling Center staff hopes more UNH students, faculty and staff will access the Kognito program and take part in the training. It is open to all members of the UNH community with an active UNH email address.
Originally published in UNH Magazine Spring 2016 Issue