An Evening of Dance

Bill emphasizes intervention after student suicides

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March 21, 2017

1:21 AM

A bill passed in the Virginia Senate places an emphasis on services following student suicides. Bill 1430 requires that Virginia colleges and universities create and implement policies that provide mental and behavioral services to students following a tragedy.

The College of William and Mary is often regarded as one of the most stressful colleges in the United States, consistently ranked among the top 50 on most stressful colleges lists. The College currently provides numerous services to students struggling with high levels of stress, but it also offers postvention services if a tragedy is to occur.

Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness Kelly Crace said the College was one of the first institutions in the country to provide these services. They are meant to ease the grieving process, calm the campus atmosphere and provide resources to prevent “suicide contagion.”

We had one of the first emergency intervention plans in the country over 60 years ago,” Crace said. “Every university now has an intervention plan that stemmed from ours … We got severely criticized by having an early intervention plan … Many universities felt like that was too restrictive and intrusive and now it was declared best practice and now everybody’s doing that.”

“We had one of the first emergency intervention plans in the country over 60 years ago,” Crace said. “Every university now has an intervention plan that stemmed from ours … We got severely criticized by having an early intervention plan … Many universities felt like that was too restrictive and intrusive and now it was declared best practice and now everybody’s doing that.”

The College’s postvention services, a term from the suicide prevention field used to mean intervention after a suicide,  have been constantly evolving over the years. Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 M.Ed. ’06 said the College entered a four-year agreement with the Jed Foundation campus program in 2015. This program gives the College feedback on its current programs and provides recommendations for further improvement.

“Becoming a JED campus has given us a lot of structure and external eyes on what we do, which is so valuable to have somebody come in and look at our programs and services and how we’re staffed and what our protocols are and to help us see where we can do things better or differently or in a more enhanced way,” Ambler said.

The second program is a suicide prevention grant, which entails a three-year commitment to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Crace said these programs have helped the College develop suicide postvention over the years, but have also regraded the College’s programs as already highly effective.

“A few years ago, we had a year where we had some loss, some tragic losses in the course of a year,” Crace said. “During that year, we asked for JED and SAMHSA to come in and scrutinize what were we doing and how did they feel about it. They walked away saying, ‘You’re doing it right.’ There are just some times, where as you know, there’s a deep complexity to suicide and you can be doing everything right and you may still have loss. It’s about doing everything we can to prevent that loss, but then trying to understand how we heal when that happens.”

The College administration is not the only source of support for students after a tragedy. Health Outreach Peer Educators is a student-run organization on campus dedicated to providing students with resources in areas such as mental and sexual health and substance abuse.

Because it is a student-run organization, Vice President of the Mental Health Branch Austin Kalasky said HOPE does not provide specific services to students following a tragedy such as student suicide, but the organization does offer peer care to grieving students.

“HOPE focuses its efforts on offering preventative and proactive programs to the W&M community,” Kalasky said in an email. “While our programs are strongly influenced by the needs of the community, HOPE tends not to offer specific programs in response to student deaths or other tragic events on campus … Even though HOPE itself does not usually offer postvention programs, students are still encouraged to reach out to HOPE members who can then guide them to the appropriate people and places on campus.”

Because the College already has an intensive postvention program, it is not required to change its policies in response to the Senate bill. However, Crace said the College’s programs are constantly changing and administrators said that they will continue to improve their programs beyond the baseline level the bill mandates.

I’m really happy that they passed that bill because it brought kind of a discussion of postvention to the foreground, but it’s more at a baseline level to make sure all universities were coming up to a baseline standard,” Crace said. “We really kind of follow more advanced evidence-based best practices. As a result of the bill, there’s nothing we need to change.”

“I’m really happy that they passed that bill because it brought kind of a discussion of postvention to the foreground, but it’s more at a baseline level to make sure all universities were coming up to a baseline standard,” Crace said. “We really kind of follow more advanced evidence-based best practices. As a result of the bill, there’s nothing we need to change.”

The College is, however, looking to improve its programs by transitioning to the new Integrated Wellness Center, which is expected to open within the next few years. The Center will provide a centralized location for students to visit for medical needs as well as counseling and mental health support.

Crace said that he credits the College’s constant desire for feedback as the biggest factor for its advanced postvention services and that administrators intend to continue seeking feedback in order to make their programs as effective as possible.

“I think we have always been on the forefront of looking at issues of wellness and mental health and I think it’s culturally because we have a humility and curiosity about ourselves at William and Mary that I think always wants us to be open to learning,” Crace said. “So, that’s what I think our assets are, is always being open to learning and then learning from those specialists out there that are devoting their lives to research in that area.”

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  • Heather Baier