Student group seeks suicide prevention

By Elizabeth Pearson

Tunnel Lights, a new suicide prevention group founded by second-year in the College Bernadette Donovan, held its first meeting on Wednesday night. The students and faculty present discussed issues such as educating the student body about suicide and restarting Niteline or a similar service.

Those attending the meeting suggested ideas like wearing yellow ribbons, handing out cards with suicide-prevention hotline numbers, and doing chalk drawings around campus to raise student awareness about suicide and depression. In addition, they talked about creating programs that would educate students on the signs of depression and indications of suicidal thought, enabling peers to monitor each other.

First-year in the College Marya Spont recommended adding a suicide and depression discussion to the Chicago Life Meetings, for which attendance is mandatory for all first-years.

“A lot of times people don’t want to discuss suicide and they just push it under the table,” Donovan said.

Bertram Cohler, professor in the social sciences division and faculty advisor for Tunnel Lights, suggested that Niteline be restarted. “There’s a new director of Student Counseling and Resources so we might have a conversation [about Niteline],” Cohler said. Niteline, an anonymous hotline, which Cohler helped found, was shut down last year because the administration felt that the student-run service posed liability issues.

Pastor Daphne Burt of Rockefeller Chapel suggested that struggling students go to religious groups on campus for help. She also advocated the creation of a forum where students could share their testimony about suicidal thoughts.

Suicide Awareness and Prevention (SAP), a group started last quarter in the medical school, was also present. SAP’s goal is to improve the mental-health resources on campus and to direct students to hotlines and services in the city of Chicago.

First-year medical student and member of SAP Justin Coffey said that the University of Chicago’s resources do not compare to schools such as Harvard, MIT, and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

“In terms of the model, I think Harvard is who we need to look at,” Coffey said. “Harvard and MIT have Web sites with surveys, hotlines, and phone numbers related to depression and suicide, as well as services similar to the former Niteline.”

“The Department of Psychiatry in the University of Chicago Hospitals is in shambles,” Coffey said, adding that it can often take up to six months to get an appointment.

Yet the University’s Student Counseling Resource Service (SCRS) is one of the only counseling centers in the country that has a no-waiting-list policy, allowing depressed or suicidal students to see a counselor on a walk-in basis. Additionally, when the SCRS is not open, there is a University therapist on-call willing to address urgent problems.

Members of SAP said they would like to see SCRS hire another therapist and remain open during evenings. They also expressed willingness to join forces with Tunnel Lights and their intention to launch a social marketing campaign in February.

“Our social marketing campaign intends to raise awareness of suicide and its relationship to depression, and campus resources available to students for help. We plan to post flyers and signs containing this type of information as pervasively on campus as our budget allows so that our audience is the entire University community,” Coffey said.

SAP has received recognition as a student service organization from the medical school, as well as funding from the Dean’s Council. Tunnel Lights plans to become a registered student organization shortly.

Along with their hopes to educate the campus about suicide, Donovan said that the atmosphere of the campus must change. “Sometimes, in a school as intellectual and introverted as this one, it’s hard to get people to watch out for each other. Education and prevention are only words if students don’t stand behind them, and that’s one reason our group will differ from those at other schools. We’ll emphasize compassion as well as knowledge,” she said.

Donovan is confident that administrators and faculty will consider Tunnel Lights’s suggestions. “Everyone in the administration has been so helpful and they want to know how to respond to students,” she said.