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ASU to enhance mental-health services through grant

December 30, 2008

ASU was recently awarded a three-year $300,000 continuation of a grant to enhance mental-health services and suicide-prevention programs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The grant makes it possible for ASU to continue and expand suicide prevention efforts with the involvement of many departments across all four ASU campuses to address student mental-health needs through a proactive, preventive and crisis-response approach that specifically targets first-year students and other at-risk student populations.

Data from the 2006 American College Health Association – National College Health Assessment show that 94 percent of Arizona State University students sampled felt overwhelmed at least once during the school year. Seventy-three percent reported feeling very sad and 57 percent said they felt like things were hopeless. Forty percent felt so depressed at least once that they found it difficult to function. Nine percent reported seriously considering attempting suicide and one percent reported having made an attempt.

“It is easier for a young person’s problems to go unnoticed when he or she is away at college and not under the eyes of parents, old friends and high school teachers,” says Martha Dennis Christiansen, who is principal investigator for the project. Christiansen serves as Associate Vice President of University Student Initiatives and Director of Counseling and Consultation.

Students who leave home for college go through a time of transition when they establish their own identity, leave traditional support systems and experience a wide range of stressful situations.

“We know that first-year students tend to be at higher risk for a number of different problems,” says Dan Schulte, a coordinator for the grant project and assistant director for training services at Counseling and Consultation. “Normal stresses are often experienced much more significantly.”

Stress, sadness and depression may be factors that contribute to suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students behind accidents.

The grant funds awareness and skill-building training sessions that are offered to ASU  “gatekeepers” such as community assistants and residential life administrators who are most likely to encounter students who are having problems. Staff members who work with campus minority populations such as American Indian, disabled, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and international students are also trained since these groups may be at risk as well.

“Of course stressors are not the same for everyone who is part of a minority group, but in general students who are members of a minority group face a greater level of stress in their daily lives simply by being who they are,” Schulte says. “This grant helps address the needs of minorities and other special populations at ASU.”

While efforts from the previous three-year grant focused on the Tempe campus, new money will be spent on preventive measures throughout ASU’s four campuses.

Training efforts have already paid off with community assistants in residence halls feeling more confident in approaching students who are struggling or engaging in risky behavior.

“They’re not always sure what to do. They don’t want to pry,” Schulte says.

After learning in training that it’s OK to reach out to those in need, community assistants  often find that the intervention is welcomed by students who may be overwhelmed by circumstances in life or mental illnesses such as clinical depression.

Students can also utilize an online personal wellness profile to assess their physical and mental health at In addition, a four-session workshop called “Think Different, Feel Better” helps students to better understand and manage their moods.

“It’s been very successful for the students who have taken part in it,” Schulte says.

Other collective factors involve making everyone in the ASU community aware of the risk of suicide and helping those students who need support.

“Suicide is a community issue. In order for a community to reduce suicide risk, we must work together toward that change. One step toward community action is becoming informed about suicide risk and protective factors. Other steps include integrating this knowledge into everyday actions such as making students feel welcome, guiding students into social groups that are supportive, noticing changes in student behavior, and directing students to counseling and other services when appropriate,” Christiansen says.

For more information on wellness programs at ASU, go to