Campaign aims to raise awareness of youth suicide

December 01, 2005, vol. 34, no. 7
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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Is suicide a secret at SFU?

Not if Connie Coniglio can help it. The associate director of clinical services at the university's health, counselling and career centre has recently launched a new program to raise awareness around the issue of youth suicide.

In Canada, suicide ranks as the second highest cause of death after auto accidents among university-aged youth, and a recent World Health Organization study found that Canada has a greater percentage of youth suicides than other countries of comparable political and socioeconomic structure.

At SFU, recent data from the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), a survey of university health indicators across North America, reveals that more than 12 per cent of students have seriously considered suicide, and almost two per cent have actually attempted suicide.

The transition to university life can overwhelm some students, says Coniglio, leaving them vulnerable to depression and suicidal thinking. “They're away from home for the first time, struggling with money issues, grade issues, relationship issues - and they just don't know how to deal with the stress.”

Coniglio, a registered psychologist, acknowledges there have been cases of students taking their own lives on campus during her 10-year tenure, but adds the NCHA study dispels the myth that suicide is more prevalent at SFU than other Canadian universities. “We're all about the same,” she says.

Still, even one suicide is too many, and Coniglio says the time has come for “the entire campus community to be involved in preventing it.” To that end, she introduced the first in a series of on-going workshops earlier this fall. In October, more than 30 faculty and staff showed up to learn about the QPR -question, persuade and refer - approach to suicide prevention.

Developed by U.S. psychologist Paul Quinnette and adopted by the U.S. armed forces, QPR offers techniques for opening lines of communication between potential suicide victims and concerned bystanders.

According to Coniglio, “there is a widely held belief that talking about suicide might actually cause people to kill themselves, but that's just not the case.”

Faculty and front-line administrative staff are particularly well-placed to notice the changes in dress, attitude and behaviour that often signal a student's deteriorating mental health, says Coniglio. With QPR training, they can be instrumental in guiding students to appropriate support services such as those offered by the health counselling, and career centre.

“I am proud to say that no person in our care has ever committed suicide,” notes Coniglio. “Once we know about a student in crisis, we can do an excellent job of helping them. But if we don't know them, we can't treat them.”

The next hour-long QPR workshop will be held Jan. 18 at the Health, Counselling and Career Centre in the Maggie Benston building. To register, or for more information on how to volunteer with SFU's suicide prevention team, contact or call 604-291-3197.

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