Start with Something: Parents as Allies in Suicide Prevention

Just over a year ago, Inside Higher Ed published an article, “Parents Unaware of Students’ Mental Health Struggles,” detailing a study completed by YouGov on behalf of UnitedHealthcare. The study found that students were reporting mental health issues at much higher rates than their parents perceived. At the time, the Director of our Student Wellness Center brought this to our team in Parent and Family Programs with the question, “What can we do?” We had to do something. 

I have incredible colleagues here at the University of Cincinnati. Once, one of them answered an interview question like this, “Sometimes you just have to start somewhere. You don’t need to put in 6 months of planning but just do something. Anything. If there is a need, you don’t always have to be super strategic about filling it. Just do it.” 

This stuck with me. So often, I have these ideas and imagine that I need a whole strategic plan with extensive pre-assessment and months of formal planning to appear legitimate. When I revisit this thought from my colleague above, I am reminded that I am good at this work, know what I’m talking about, and can do things that make a difference even if I need to move quickly. This work is about rising to the occasion. For those who know me, I always try to be someone you can count on to show up. 

So back to this discrepancy between parents and students around mental health. What can we do? 

Here is how my office in Parent and Family Programs at UC responded. 

Since the data showed this discrepancy in perceptions, it was important for us to get our families and students talking to one another. Our first effort came in the form of revisions to our UC Family Guide (check it out!). I spent some time reviewing our Family Guide to include worksheets and additional conversation starters around each of our tough topics so families could start these conversations over the summer. We gave them a place to write down their answers. And each week, I pulled those exact conversation starters and created graphics for our Instagram Story. We wrote questions like, “What are some signs that should indicate to me that you’re experiencing heightened stress/mental health difficulty? (Note: You can develop a pre-determined system to use with your student.)”. 

After those revisions were made, we published our electronic Family Guide everywhere—on our website, UC Family Portal, Instagram, LinkTree, orientation presentation, etc. But we still wanted to print hard copies, and as an office without a budget, that was going to be a challenge. 

Since our Family Guide contained other messages about student health and wellness, our Student Wellness Center came to the rescue. They had some money leftover on a grant that would allow us to publish physical copies of our Family Guide to give to families at orientation. It was a great partnership—we got resources into the hands of the most influential people in our students' lives—their families. 

This concept really got us thinking: what other opportunities do we offer our students to educate them on mental health? Could we leverage those opportunities further to families?

I contacted our Department of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to ask if one of their facilitators would offer an online QPR Question, Persuade, Refer Evidence-Based Suicide Prevention training to our families. CAPS was already offering this program to students for free once a month with the help of volunteer facilitators. I was met with excitement around the collaboration, and our CAPS team was thrilled that they could now add families to their list of trainees. After discussing the details, I used CampusESP to create an event registration for our first virtual QPR training. Registrants received the Zoom link to attend the event. Registration for our first training reached capacity in under an hour. We capped the event at 40 to allow for some melt and to make sure that our facilitator could answer questions with time and attention. Our facilitator was a UC staff member who also happened to have a student himself at UC. This helped him create buy-in with our participants as he could relate to them as a fellow Bearcat parent. After the training, participants get added to a special community in CampusESP where we can provide them with additional opportunities. 

I think the great part about this is that there are still more ways that I can get information out to our families about supporting and understanding student mental health. I am fortunate to be at a large research institution, and there are paths that I have not yet explored. There is good traction here, and I hope to be able to forge partnerships with our university hospital. I’ll keep you posted on what happens next year. 

So, if you’re looking for a place to start educating parents (on any relevant topic, for that matter!), my tips are: 

  1. Think about the resources and partnerships you already have. Our office had a strong web presence, good partners who also needed their messages shared, we had space and time at orientation, and we had a captive audience. 
  2. It doesn’t have to be perfect to give it a shot. Did I have tons of institutional data? No. Do I have a degree in counseling or public health? No. Did I spend a year planning this out before I implemented it? No. But I had an important message, good partners, and a sound place to start.  
  3. Remember, you know your stuff! My supervisor always reminds me that I don’t have to be the content expert, but I *am* the parent and family expert. 
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