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National Report Claims UofA Does Not Track Student Suicides

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An Associated Press report published Jan. 2 claims that the UofA does not have statistics or does not consistently collect data on student suicides.

Scott Flanagin, director of UA Communications and Student Affairs, thinks that the claim by the AP article is misleading, he said in an email. UA officials did not have records that could be released in response to a public records request by the AP.

The AP requested records that outlined the annual number of known suicides and records detailing individual suicides, Flanagin said. UA officials do not keep data on the annual number, and they would not release individual student record information protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Universities are not required to report death by suicide because it may occur while at home, on leave or after students fail out of school, so the numbers may be less accurate, according to the National Network of Depression Centers.

University officials may also avoid reporting student suicides because it may damage the university’s reputation, according to the AP.

Because UA officials did not provide records for the AP, the news organization characterized the university as lacking records on student suicides and not tracking that information consistently. The UofA does keep information that is provided to them regarding student deaths, including death by suicide, and they consistently keep individual records, Flanagin said.

There is a difference between recording a death on a student’s record and keeping a record of deaths, Flanagin said. UA officials do not keep a compiled or complete record regarding deaths. If UA officials are made aware of a student suicide, the death is noted on the individual student’s record.

Students leave school for a variety of reasons, and some do not notify the university when they do, Flanagin said. UA officials are not always informed of their reasoning for the departure, so if a student’s departure is because of suicide, it is up to the student’s parents or authorities to report it.

“We certainly would want to offer appropriate support to any friends and family of deceased students and are prepared to act in those circumstances but cannot unless we are made aware,” Flanagin said.

Death by suicide was the second leading cause of death for ages 15-34 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suicide is a complex issue, and there is never one reason for someone to die by suicide, said Michele Cooper, UA suicide prevention coordinator.

Those who are considering suicide or have attempted it feel like a burden to others and extremely isolated, Cooper said. Among adults ages 18-25, 7.4 percent reported having serious thoughts of suicide in 2015, according to the CDC.

University officials began recording individual student concerns, protected by FERPA laws, in 2013 through an online reporting system, Flanagin said. This is to ensure that resources are made available to students who are facing challenges that affect their well-being.

The University of Georgia, Texas A&M University and the University of Alabama are among other schools that do not have statistics or regularly keep data, according to the AP report.

Florida State University is one school that consistently keeps data on student suicides, according to the AP report.

“Florida State University has actively recorded student deaths, including suicides, for many years,” said Carlos Gomez, counseling center director for FSU, in an email. “Our dean of students department has records regarding student deaths dating to 2006.”

FSU officials keep records because they recognize the prevalence of suicide among college students, and they aim to proactively help students in distress, Gomez said. One proactive program at FSU is Noles C.A.R.E., a suicide prevention program that provides suicide prevention training, education and resources for the campus.

“Through training, the hope is to build a campus of caring and connectedness for everyone and understand where the resources are to get help,” Gomez said

Gomez’s hope is to create a campus to care and intervene when someone is in distress, he said.

If a person is concerned for another individual and wants to be proactive, they can use the Kognito Program, Cooper said. It is an online training program that shows how to identify an individual that someone may be concerned about. Staff at Pat Walker Health Center and Resident Assistants are required to take the program.

“It shows you how to have an effective, empathetic conversation with them and where you can refer them to get help,” Cooper said.

The program simulates real life situations where avatars respond emotionally to the person taking the course, Cooper said. There is also a coach that helps the person to respond in a beneficial way that does not make someone feel defensive.

An individual who feels like they are in urgent need can visit counselors during the day at the Pat Walker Health Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services or call the CAPS number after hours to speak with a counselor. The CAPS number also offers 24/7 emergency services.

“The Dean of Students Office is a great resource as well for students,” Cooper said. “If they feel uncomfortable with going to counseling, the Dean of Students Office is a great partner of ours that can help them.”

There are 14 licensed mental health clinicians – psychologists, counselors or social workers – that are on CAPS staff, Cooper said. CAPS offers consultation services for people who are unsure about how to approach a student they are worried about.

“We can talk through the situation with you and look at what the options are and what the best approach is,” Cooper said. “Sometimes a conversation is enough to let them know that somebody cares for them and will support them if they want to seek help. Those are really powerful things.”

Cooper’s desire is that students know people are available and care about them, she said.

“We want them to know there's hope even when there doesn't feel like there's hope,” Cooper said.

CAPS officials will screen the documentary “The S Word,” followed by a panel discussion at a suicide prevention event March 6 at the Faulkner Performing Arts Center. The panelists include Lisa Klein,the director of the documentary; Dese’Rae Stage, an attempted suicide survivor and creator of a website called Live Through This; and Melanie Scott, a mother who lost her daughter by suicide.

“We want to get the word out that there's help, and there’s hope,” Cooper said. “I, personally, the university, and Pat Walker Health and CAPS are significantly committed to this issue.”

Tegan Shockley is a staff reporter for the Arkansas Traveler, where she has been a staff reporter since 2017.

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