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College of Health Sciences

The Watchword Is ‘Prevention’

Boise State suicide and mental health awareness and prevention efforts look to get ahead of the curve but need support.

by Harrison Berry

For the last three years, Christy Amstutz has been involved in residence life at Boise State University. She currently serves as a resident assistant in University Square Apartments, and in the fall of 2020, she said she noticed a change in the stress levels of her fellow residents.

“A lot of students felt overwhelmed. There was a lot to keep track of and they were feeling like they couldn’t handle academics and keep it all together,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed many of the pressures students face, like stress from classes, personal responsibility and plugging into a new community. As Boise State joined the rest of the nation last week in recognizing National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week, the issues of suicide and mental health are top-of-mind, and the university is working hard to address crises more effectively and prevent many situations from severely impacting students’ educational experiences. These include GradWell for graduate students, Boise State Counseling Services, the holistic health initiative BroncoFIT and BroncoBOLD for student-athletes. They’re all part of an effort to make Boise State a thriving community and one of the healthiest universities in the nation.

The thing most students have in common is the classroom, and that’s where Outreach and Prevention Case Manager Michelle Tassinari said she can have the most impact. She’s using a $304,000 grant from the Center for Mental Health Services via the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act to conduct a needs assessment, and provide mental health and suicide prevention training to select faculty members similar to what the university gives RAs like Amstutz. The idea is to identify and address abnormal behavior, and the stakes are high: In the fall semester of 2020, Boise State recorded an average of one student suicide attempt per week. Now, Tassinari said the university has a shot at getting ahead of the problem.

“One attempt is too much, but our community needs to understand that this isn’t some far-fetched thing that’s happening,” she said about her efforts. “Suicide is a preventable thing. Prevention, community and access to resources are actionable steps we can take to prevent suicide on our campus.”

Boise State marked Suicide Prevention Week Sept. 7-10, with events aimed at creating a campus culture that destigmatizes the issues surrounding mental health and suicide, and educates about the signs and symptoms of abnormal behavior. Events included a meet-and-greet with Boise State’s sports therapy dog, guest lectures, counselor meet-ups, documentary screenings, a chalk art installation and more.

Behind the events is the intention to create a baseline awareness around mental health and enshrine it among other forms of health like fitness, diet and spirituality; but to spread the message of Suicide Prevention Awareness Week around the whole year will take resources. Matt Niece, director of Counseling Services at Boise State, said early intervention and advances in treatment have meant more students are entering the university with mental health needs. As that population grows, he said, so must the size of his team, programming levels and student access to services through support of the Student Health Services Uncompensated Care Fund.

“Money is always something that’s always going to move the needle when it comes to addressing and improving mental health for such a large population.”

As Boise State pursues a two-pronged approach to suicide prevention and mental health on campus, it has named mental health as an important part of the Thriving Community plank of its strategic plan. That puts it in rarified air, but at the center of the university’s goals are people like Christy Amstutz who rely on things as simple as awareness and care to support their community.

“If I can do my best to have a conversation with my residents, that’s where that trust and respect come from,” she said. “Things are just so much easier that way.”

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