When Phil and Donna Satow lost their son, Jed, to suicide in 1998, they met with the president of the college he’d been attending to try to gain some understanding. Were there suicide prevention programs their son might have turned to, they asked. There was a counseling service, the president said, but it was shared among 35,000 students. “What would you have me do?” he asked.
The Satows set out to answer that question, turning to experts in the fields of mental health and education. From their efforts came the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit now recognized as the national leader in helping campuses develop an array of resources and programs designed to promote emotional wellness and prevent suicide.
It’s help that’s been accepted enthusiastically by many campuses across the country, said Dr. Victor Schwartz, the foundation’s medical director for more than three years. He said that while colleges are under no legal mandate to provide such mental health services, more and more are doing so “because they recognize it’s good for their students, helping them not only to perform better academically, but also to grow and thrive.”
When the foundation launched in 2000, it kept its sights on suicide prevention among college students. But over time, its role has expanded to include mental health promotion and substance abuse prevention as well. Programs now also target teens before they head to college.
“We’ve come to the understanding that one of the problems with the suicide prevention community is that it’s very focused on suicide,” Dr. Schwartz said, “so people are running around looking for signs of suicide. It’s like cardiologists running around looking for people having chest pains, rather than intervening at the level of treating cholesterol and high blood pressure.” The group’s supporters hope that by helping students build resilience and other protective factors, such as community connectedness, suicidal thoughts won’t have a chance to grow. “It’s trying to address problems before they become crises,” Dr. Schwartz said.
Taking Jed to Campuses
Today, the foundation provides help in a variety of forms, but its biggest project is the Campus Program, which the Jed Foundation runs in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. The program offers a detailed, multipronged framework that campus administrators and mental health professionals can personalize as they create and implement their own programs to promote mental health and prevent substance use and suicide.
It’s a hand-on process. “We actually go in and work with schools,” Dr. Schwartz said. “They take a series of surveys … we review them, give them feedback and make recommendations about how they might get their system to be more robust or more efficient and find resources that they may not know about.”
Schools that make a four-year commitment to working with The Campus Program to improve their offerings earn a program membership seal. More than 100 schools have already done so, and the program continues to grow in popularity. It’s open to schools big and small, from community colleges to the Ivy Leagues. That means what works for one campus may not work for another.
“We try to make sure campuses are thinking in a systematic and thoughtful way and doing the best they can given the realities of the school — their resources, their setting, their student body and the needs they have,” Dr. Schwartz said. “One school may need to put a lot more into having veteran’s services, for example, while for another school it may be nearly irrelevant. We’re trying to help them figure out what is most strategically sensible for them.”
A Direct Link With Students
The Jed Foundation also offers a series of program guides that includes topics such as managing at-risk teens and responding to a suicide or other tragedy on campus. Then there are the online resources aimed directly at students. For example, ULifeline offers an anonymous screening tool and connects students with their campuses’ programs. The foundation also partners with MTV on public service videos and creates social media campaigns that work to decrease prejudice and make it more acceptable for those in need to seek help. Examples of such campaigns are Love is Louder and Half of Us.
A website called Transition Year, which helps students and their parents deal with the passage from high school to college, is also set to undergo a major expansion, Dr. Schwartz said. It will be renamed “Set to Go” and become a comprehensive guide to “everything a high school student, his or her family, high school administrators, and mental health and general health clinicians should be considering in making decisions about where a young person should go to college and thinking about what steps should be taken to make sure they’re adequately prepared for the social and emotional developmental challenges,” he said. The launch target date is early 2016.
The reworked site will help all involved consider the important “fit” issues — details such as a school’s distance from the student’s home, the social setting, and whether the campus is structured to be hands-on or if it leaves students to their own devices. “People don’t think about these things enough,” Dr. Schwartz said, “and our feeling is that as much of your success is going to depend on making good decisions about these issues as about the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the school.”
Looking Behind the Need
There are no clear-cut numbers on annual campus suicides, Dr. Schwartz said, because suicides aren’t always recorded as such. What’s known is that suicide is the second-leading cause of death in those ages 15 to 25, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And according to the 2014 National College Health Assessment, close to a third of surveyed students said they felt so depressed they found it difficult to function at some point within the past year, and more than 8% said they seriously considered suicide.
Numbers such as these have prompted campuses to boost their mental health services and have fueled a national debate about what’s driving the trend. “There’s this ongoing question about whether students are sicker or less resilient or things like that,” Dr. Schwartz said, “and there’s data that flows both ways. But the issue that’s incontrovertible is that more and more students are using their school services, but it’s very possible that students actually aren’t sicker, but that they’re using these resources because they’re more available.”
Dr. Schwartz said he believes that while “it’s certainly true that in some ways kids the last 10 to 15 years have been coddled, what’s missed in that equation is that they’ve also been demanded of in tremendous ways. They haven’t been permitted to make missteps or ever get a B- in a class if they wanted to get into a ‘good’ college. So we’ve made really contradictory and paradoxical demands of them along the way.”
Add to that “the world’s been a difficult place for the last 6 to 8 years, and kids are finishing college with tremendous debt, with uncertainty about the job market and the economy,” he said. “They have damn good reason to be worried and stressed about things.”
Dr. Schwartz said the erosion of access to community-based health and mental health in the past 20 years has influenced the demand for campus services — and the resultant perception that students are more troubled than ever. “A lot of us have argued that one of the reasons we’ve seen tremendous growth and utilization of college counseling services is because students no longer have good access to care in the communities they’re going to school in or where they’re living in many cases. Many schools are doing better than the local neighborhood or local community is doing in terms of providing health care and support and services,” he said.
Students also appear to be growing more comfortable reaching out for help, he said, “and that’s progress. I think we’re normalizing help-seeking and really educating young people about the fact that there really are resources out there that can help and that getting help sooner is better than getting help in a crisis.”
Setting a Mental Health Standard
In his 25 years in campus mental health services and higher education administration, Dr. Schwartz has seen many changes. Among the biggest, he notes with pride, is the Jed Foundation’s influence. “This model that the Jed Foundation has developed has become the national standard,” he said, “and I think it has transformed the way people in college are thinking about providing mental health services in valuable and important ways.”
At its essence, he said, the foundation’s goal is to ensure that “if a 19-year-old has gotten up the gumption to say ‘I need help,’ you can get them in there fast, because they may change their mind in a day or two. You want to be able to be as responsive and welcoming as you can be.”
By Kendal Patterson
Follow Kendal on Twitter at @kendalpatterson