Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Suicide a real concern in DU community

It isn’t easy to admit there’s a suicide issue in the DU community, campus health officials say; but without talking about it, the problem won’t go away.

In each of the last five or six years, at least one member of the DU community — students, faculty and staff — has committed suicide, says Terri Osborn, director of counseling services at the Health and Counseling Center. In one recent year there were four.

“We need to understand the clientele at DU and why there are one to three or four suicides here [each year],” Osborn says. “There are several colleges where they haven’t had any in many years and other colleges that have had more.”

Exact numbers are uncertain because no central source at DU compiles suicide statistics. Statistics for colleges nationally indicate there is one suicide per year for every 10,000 students and about 25 attempts for every completed suicide. 

Osborn isn’t waiting for the numbers to shake out. She, Health Promotion Coordinator Katie Dunker and the Health and Counseling Center have launched a major initiative this academic year to break the taboo around discussion of suicide and to educate the University community about what they can do to help cut the numbers. 

The initiative uses a program called QPR, the creation of a Washington-based institute that hopes QPR becomes the CPR of suicide prevention. It arms people with techniques to Question a person who expresses interest in suicide,Persuade that person to seek help and Refer the person to a qualified professional.

Consider these facts, Osborn says, when deciding whether QPR training is worth an hour of your time:

1. Suicide has warning signs: About 90 percent of people who complete suicide have communicated their intention in some way prior to acting. This suicidal intent isn’t often expressed to a mental health professional because only about 20 percent of people who complete suicide are in treatment at the time they act.

2. Talk is key; hope is critical: People contemplating suicide generally want help but don’t know how to ask for it. The most common reaction to their expressions is to be “ignored or ridiculed.” The best way to help is to be direct and instill hope. “It’s totally preventable if recognized,” says Louise McDonald, University Health and Counseling director.

3. Students are a special risk:
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students. The group with the greatest risk is white males, 15–24 years old, who abuse alcohol or other substances, suffer from depression or mood disorder, experience a relationship conflict and live in the Rocky Mountain region, which ranks seventh in the nation in suicides per 100,000 people.

“But this isn’t just for students,” Dunker emphasizes. “This is for faculty and staff just as much.”

4. The guilt isn’t worth it:
Feeling you could have helped someone but failed to listen or act can be psychologically difficult to get over, Osborn cautions.

She knows firsthand. Her brother took his life while a senior at the University of Colorado.

“I don’t want anyone — anyone — to go through what my family and I have gone through,” she says.

The memories fuel her passion for the QPR program, which she and Dunker became certified to teach after extensive training last summer. The two are among only 12 active, certified QPR practitioners in Colorado.

So far they have conducted training sessions for a few DU audiences: the Health and Counseling staff, residential assistants, and Campus Life. Next on tap are Living and Learning Community staff members and Campus Safety officers, with as many other groups after that as they can schedule.

But it’s not been easy. Invitations to 78 First-Year Experience faculty members resulted in interest from five. Osborn notes, however, that the lack of response was likely due to when the training was scheduled.

Still, she says people are hesitant to talk about suicide and tend to think suicide prevention is not their responsibility.

“The people who are in contact with students every day are the ones who are going to most likely to see [warning] signs,” she says. “The point is to raise awareness and dispel myths, not to make everybody a counselor.”

Getting help
Who is eligible for help: Every enrolled student at DU is eligible for two free counseling sessions at the Student Health and Counseling Center. Any faculty or staff member is entitled to up to five free sessions per year.  

What help is available: A Health and Counseling Center counselor is available by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Where to get info: Call the counseling center at 303-871-2205; Campus Safety at 303-871-3000; or the suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE. Information about QPR is at

A version of this article originally appeared in
The Source, December 2006.

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