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Suicide prevention starts with better mental health awareness

Mental health experts, student peers work to keep resources top of mind

Mark Volk Porter
Mark Volk Porter is a flight instructor and UND senior in Commercial Aviation with a specialization in Business, Aviation and Safety. He’s also the current chair of UpLift, a confidential peer support service for students enrolled in UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. Photo by Arjun Jagada/School of Aerospace Sciences.

UND Commercial Aviation senior and flight instructor Mark Volk Porter says he often poses a question to his student pilots:

“Let’s say we have an engine that is showing high oil temperature and low oil pressure … would we rather deal with that situation now or would we rather deal with it as an engine failure?”

It’s not a trick question, Volk Porter says, so students quickly respond that “they’d want to deal with it now, while we still have an engine.”

They’re right, of course, but the chair of UpLift, a confidential peer support service for students of UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, says the question offers a deeper message that goes beyond the rules of flight.

“That same analogy can be used with almost anything in life,” Volk Porter explained. “If I’m struggling with something — no matter what it is — I would much rather deal with it early on than shove it deep down inside and allow it to fester and blow up later.

“We’re here to give support to our fellow students whenever they need it. We want to help before anything becomes a bigger issue or before there’s a diagnosis that could pause their career. Our hope is that students are trusting and willing to use the services and resources that are here and meant for them.”

UND Dean of Students Alex Pokornowski agreed, adding: “The mental health and well-being of our students and campus community are incredibly important and complex concerns. At UND, we are fortunate to have outstanding student leaders, like Mark and the other UpLift peers, who advocate for and support our students.

“Additionally, we have fantastic professionals providing direct and support services to our students. They are continually evaluating the needs, our current efforts, and identifying opportunities to enhance our efforts concerning the mental health and well-being of our community.”

The whole nation marked September as Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, but peer supporters and mental health professionals say every day is a good day to spread mental health awareness — and that’s especially true on college campuses, where statistics show students are at a higher risk.

What’s behind the statistics?

A recent Mayo Clinic survey of students across 133 campuses found that 44 percent of college students reported symptoms of depression, and 15 percent said they seriously had considered suicide in the past year.

Michelle Montgomery, wellness advocate in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences, says the National College Health Assessment found in 2021 that 29 percent of college students had been diagnosed with anxiety. Further, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention last year called suicide the second-leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 10 to 34.

Statistics like these are sobering, but what is it that puts college students at such an elevated risk?

As a student in the particularly demanding field of aviation, Volk Porter offered some of his own insights, which mirror what the mental health experts are saying.

“College can be a very large change in a person’s life. Many students are going from that very nurtured, very structured home environment that they’ve had for the past 18 years into an environment that’s completely new,” he said. “For a lot of students, this is the first time they’re really self-dependent and self-motivated. It’s suddenly all up to them to get their schoolwork finished on time, to eat healthy and to get to the Wellness Center every once in a while (to exercise).

“Compound that large change with the pressure to do well in school and balance your classes with a social life and a part-time or full-time job — and it all can be pretty challenging.”

In other words, college students still are trying to figure out some basic life skills without their in-house parental safety net or any other regular support system in place.

Sarah Gustafson, a nurse practitioner at UND Student Health Services, says this can leave students feeling not only lost but also isolated when they’re trying to juggle so many new feelings on their own.

“Students are coming into a place where they maybe don’t know a lot of people yet, and they can just feel lonely,” Gustafson said. “Mix that with everything else, and that really can create some mental health challenges for individuals.”

Being a friend when it really counts

Carolyn Broden, associate director of the University Counseling Center, echoed that thought, adding that it’s more important than ever for people to simply check up on others as good-health neighbors. When something seems off, you should ask. That listening ear and acknowledgment that someone cares often can be the catalyst for someone seeking the help they need, she said.

Carolyn Broden
Carolyn Broden

“In high school, you probably knew almost everyone and came home to a parent or caregiver who asked, ‘How was your day?’ But when you’re living in a residence hall, you might not have that kind of relationship yet with a roommate or suitemate, and that also can feed into the isolation,” Broden said. “You still may be surrounded by a lot of people in college, but it can be more like airport etiquette, where it’s like, ‘You’re in one of my classes, but I don’t actually know your name.’”

It’s in those situations when people need to give themselves permission to start a conversation peer to peer. And that’s exactly what programs such as UpLift and the Green Bandana Project — another mental health awareness and suicide prevention campaign — try to do.

“You don’t need to be a professional therapist to care about somebody and just check in,” Broden said. “Whether you’re a therapist or not, we’re very intimidated by talk of suicide. It’s intense. It’s heavy. But I think we can continue to break down that barrier to it being this scary word and really just focus on checking in and asking, ‘How are you doing? This is what I’m noticing, and I care about you.’ That’s really where we can make a difference.

“It just goes back to that very basic human interaction. That’s what we need. People need to know that it’s OK to not be OK. And it’s also OK to not have all the answers.”

Montgomery says she likes to refer to mental health and well-being as “brain health” because it’s sometimes easier for people to identify with that.

“Even though the University can seem so big and overwhelming, there’s always going to be someone you can reach out to. And if they aren’t the person who can help you, they can take you to the right person who can. You’re never alone,” she said. “If you break your leg, you’re going to get a cast and crutches. If you have diabetes, you’re going to take medicine. I think it’s really important for people to look at mental health — your brain health — the same way.”

Crowd at 2022 Aviation Mental Health Symposium
It was a full house at the Aviation Mental Health Symposium in 2022. It was the first time the symposium was held on the UND campus, but UND hosted the very first such symposium a year earlier in Chicago. Photo by Arjun Jagada/Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

Help is always out there

Here are just a few of the ways peers and mental health experts are both spreading awareness and providing mental health resources on campus:

>> Students in Aerospace Sciences can go to upliftpeer.com to connect with a peer with similar life experiences. Volk Porter stresses that the service and all conversations are confidential and DO NOT require reporting to the FAA “up to a singular point” — and that is when there is talk of self-harm or harm to others. How it works: The person seeking service simply needs to enter their phone number and indicate whether they’d like to be contacted within 24 or 48 hours. A trained peer supporter picks up the case and reaches out via text message to arrange a time to talk. That same trained peer will note only the general topic discussed — for example, relationship issue or academic stress — and debrief with a licensed psychologist to ensure proper advice was given.

Volk Porter acknowledged that pilots’ fears of a grounding medical diagnosis may be deeply ingrained, but sharing a stressful situation with a peer rarely leads to that, and the program has seen an uptick in usage. “You really need to take care of yourself,” he said. “Flight training will always be there. It’s OK to take a break if you need it.”

>> The Green Bandana Project is gaining strength and empowering peer-to-peer support. Broden says more than 400 UND students already have completed the four-hour training session that gives them the practice, tools and techniques to navigate difficult discussions. She stressed that students are not being trained to be therapists. Rather, they learn how to use real tools — such as a list of screening questions they can access on their phone — to assess if a peer is experiencing a “mild, moderate or severe” mental health issue that could require more resources. Students who complete the program are given a green bandana and encouraged to tie it to their backpack to show others they are willing to be approached for conversation by someone who may be struggling with a mental health issue.

“The feedback we’ve heard from students is that it’s been a good experience and they’re grateful for the training,” Broden said. “It’s also given us an opportunity to highlight the resources available. Students often don’t realize many of these services are covered by their student fees and don’t involve any additional cost.” The University Counseling Center offers Green Bandana training at the beginning of each semester, but groups of 30+ also can request it. Groups also can request Emotional First Aid training.

>> The TEARS Talk & Walk at the Ralph Engelstad Arena marked its 10th anniversary this September. Gustafson and Montgomery co-chaired the event that was “founded on the belief that all survivors of suicide loss deserve support, connection and hope.” They explained that TEARS — which stands for Together we Educate About the Realities of Suicide — is a great example of how Altru, UND and the whole community are coming together to make a positive impact. The event is for all ages and includes face painting, games with UND athletes, vendors and a keynote speaker.

“We like to showcase sources of strength,” Gustafson said. “It’s good for people to see that it doesn’t matter what your job title is or who you are — suicide affects everybody.”

>> The University Counseling Center is now able to practice telepsychiatry with students in more than 40 states after North Dakota became part of PSYPACT.

>> The University Counseling Center increased the number of students completing their practicum and counseling trainee hours at the center from two to five this year. It’s also working to establish the UCC as a placement site for doctoral internships with the American Psychological Association. These efforts increase training opportunities for UND students and directly increase the amount of access that UCC is able to provide to students.

>> Rachel Navarro and Norman McCloud recently were awarded the five-year Garrett Lee Smith State/Tribal Suicide Prevention & Early Intervention Program cooperative agreement.

More resources …

>> You can learn more about services provided by the University Counseling Center by following the link.

>> The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as suicide prevention and crisis resources.

>> The Crisis Text Line will connect you to a crisis counselor. Just text HOME to 741741.

>> FirstLink is a free and confidential service available 24/7 for listening and support across North Dakota and parts of Minnesota. It also offers referrals to resources, help and crisis intervention. Dial 211 or text your ZIP code to 898-211.