By Steve Nakata, Student Affairs
PULLMAN, Wash. – Morgan Slack knew the warning signs for people contemplating suicide. As a Washington State University student, she even trained other students how to spot them as part of her work at the university’s Health and Wellness Services.
Sometimes, suicidal people are really good at hiding their depression, as was the case with Slack’s boyfriend of two years. Fourteen months ago she found Tyler’s lifeless body inside his bedroom, a moment that sent her life into a wild tailspin.
“He never said anything to me about wanting to kill himself,” said Slack. “I didn’t see it coming at all, and I was in complete shock.”
She met Tyler, an engineering major, in the WSU Air Force ROTC program. He wanted to be an Air Force pilot.
Slack said he would light up any room with his big smile, made a lot of friends, and loved challenging himself at the gym. Her vision of the future always included him by her side.
Tyler’s unexpected suicide sent her into deep depression. Slack described it as post-traumatic stress disorder which is a debilitating anxiety disorder caused by witnessing a traumatic event. She couldn’t go back to work, nor could she continue her studies. She felt defeated because she did not pick up on any warning signs Tyler may have displayed. If he was aware he was experiencing depression, Morgan believes he didn’t understand it and likely closed himself off from talking about it with anyone — even those closest to him.
A new sense of purpose
She credits her former supervisor, Paula Adams, associate director of Health and Wellness Services (HWS), and others in the Division of Student Affairs for providing her with strong support at a time when she most needed it.
It’s been almost 18 months since the tragedy occurred, and Morgan is back at WSU pursuing her degrees in political science and criminal justice. It has been a long road for her to get to the point where she can once again focus on her studies, and just as importantly, talk about what she’s been through.
At the time of the tragedy final exams were fast approaching. Adams collaborated with the Dean of Students Office, which notified all of Morgan’s professors that she might need flexibility in completing her classes. Adams also helped connect her with mental health professionals that helped Morgan obtain essential therapy and prescription medications to treat her depression.
After hearing of Tyler’s death, many students who also have been impacted by suicide reached out to Slack on social media. She discovered there are others in the community who share her passion about suicide prevention.
“Being able to share my experience with them gave me a new sense of purpose,” she said. “I found my voice and for that I’m so thankful.”
On par with national averages
According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the only federally supported organization of its kind in the nation, suicide is a leading cause of death among U.S. college students.
The National College Health Assessment administered by the American College Health Association in the spring of 2016 reveals that:
- 66 percent of respondents across the nation reported feeling very sad.
- 60 percent felt overwhelming anxiety.
- More than 37 percent felt so depressed that it was difficult to function at some point during the previous 12 months.
The assessment included responses from 3,168 WSU students. The data showed:
- 63 percent of respondents felt very sad.
- 56 percent felt overwhelming anxiety.
- 35 percent felt so depressed that it was difficult to function at some point during the previous 12 months.
Victoria Braun, HWS health promotion specialist, said these numbers, as well as the 9 percent who have seriously thought about suicide and the less than 2 percent who have attempted suicide, are on par with the national averages.
While the national data shows the number of students experiencing mental health issues is on the rise, she warns that multiple factors need to be considered when tracking such numbers. As a society, we are becoming more comfortable talking openly about mental illness, we are more educated on its symptoms, and more colleges are accepting students with mental illnesses because they have the resources to support them.
“This is a complex issue and cannot be summed up with a couple of statistics,” she said.
Meeting challenges head on
Kick started by support from the JED Foundation and the Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant, HWS has been able to establish several key programs aimed at educating the WSU community about mental health and suicide prevention.
Key initiatives underway include:
- Mental Health First Aid Program — a certification course that teaches participants to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to help people experiencing them.
- Campus Connect Suicide Prevention Program — teaches participants warning signs of suicide and how to respond appropriately to those displaying them. This program recently trained all 167 Resident Advisors (RA’s) in WSU’s residence halls. As part of a new partnership with Global Campus, the Campus Connect training is now available online, https://elearning.wsu.edu/streaming/globalconnections.aspx.
- Improving the communication of WSU mental health policies and protocols to the WSU community.
- Collaboration with WSU’s College of Communication to create a marketing campaign that combats the stigma surrounding mental health and promotes mental health screening services.
- The establishment of the Campus Mental Health Collaborative — a universitywide group that is examining gaps in current policies and procedures as well as best practices at other universities.
Adams said Morgan, a student employee at HWS, came in on the ground floor of several of the initiatives and made an immediate impact.
“Her participation was very important to us because she was able to provide feedback from a student’s perspective on many things we were examining.”
A mission to educate
For Slack, her connections with HWS not only provided valuable support during a very difficult time, they also confirmed her desire to keep educating the WSU community and population at large about mental health issues and suicide prevention. The senior aspires to earn a master’s degree in public administration at WSU and eventually become a director of a mental health facility.
While Tyler is no longer alive, memories of him provide Morgan with strong motivation to help destigmatize mental illness in our society.
“I tell people that it wasn’t Tyler who killed himself, but rather depression that took his life,” she said. “I want students to know that it is ok to ask for help, and we can’t fight depression alone.”
- Paula Adams, associate director, Health and Wellness Services, 509-335-7884, email@example.com.
- Steve Nakata, public relations communications coordinator, Student Affairs, 509-335-1774, firstname.lastname@example.org