In the words of President Wim Wiewel, Tuesday was a day to “grapple with a very difficult issue.” Amid the backdrop of the sun-lit South Park Blocks, former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, his wife Sharon and student health professionals for Portland State and the University of Portland addressed the issue of mental health and suicide.
In the words of President Wim Wiewel, Tuesday was a day to “grapple with a very difficult issue.”
Amid the backdrop of the sun-lit South Park Blocks, former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, his wife Sharon and student health professionals for Portland State and the University of Portland addressed the issue of mental health and suicide in the Vanport Room on the third from of the Smith Memorial Student Union.
The primary goals of the event were to bring awareness to the warning signs and risk factors of suicide, and ensure that those contemplating taking their lives understand they should feel comfortable speaking about their concerns.
Vice Provost of Student Affairs Jackie Balzer said the idea for the event hatched out of a phone call from Sen. Smith a few weeks after the news that two Portland State students had committed suicide in March.
Gordon and Sharon Smith lost their son Garrett in September 2003. At the time, Garrett was a student at Utah Valley State and was one day shy of turning 22 years old.
“He had big beautiful brown eyes and a smile as big as the sun,” Sen. Smith said of his son before describing his reaction to the news of Garrett’s death. “My world came crashing down before me.”
Following Garrett’s death, Sen. Smith worked hard to pass legislation regarding mental health and suicide.
Just over a year after Garrett took his life in September 2004, Congress passed the final version of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, “establishing critical and needed support for mental and behavioral health services to students on college campuses.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Smith spoke passionately about the need for further education of mental illness and suicide awareness on college campuses, where it is the second leading cause of death behind traffic accidents.
Sharon Smith continued to drive home the need for college students and faculty members to be well versed on the causes, risk factors and warning signs of suicide.
She emphasized how important it is for family and friends to ask questions and search for warning signs because often times those measures can lead to suicide prevention.
“Unfortunately, college presents new challenges. These are challenges that Gordon and I were not aware of,” Sharon said. “This is why it is so important for us to improve resources on college campuses.”
Beginning in fall 2005, Portland State was one of seven Oregon universities to receive funding for the Oregon University Suicide Prevention Project, which was funded by a three-year federal grant and strives to increase suicide awareness.
The primary tenet of the prevention project included training healthcare professionals, distributing brochures containing facts and information and providing risk-reduction seminars.
Carla Riedlinger, clinical social worker in Portland State’s Center for Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), has worked closely with the Oregon University Suicide Prevention Project.
Emphasizing the fact that students considering suicide typically reach out to their peers first, Riedlinger encourages student leaders and those who are in contact with a number of students to take advantage of gatekeeper training sessions that feature role playing and teach suicide warning signs and risk factors.
“We know that students will talk to their peers and educating students for that reason is important,” Riedlinger said.