As September settles in and summer gives way to fall, changes are evident everywhere around us. Crisp, cool fall air replaces the heat and humidity of summer, students return to classrooms and trees shed their green hues in favor of brilliant reds and yellows.
However millions of people are searching for a different type of change this September.
This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, with Wednesday, Sept. 10, being recognized as World Suicide Prevention Day. Organizations around the country will spend this week raising awareness about mental health and promoting help for the more than 20 million Americans who suffer from depression.
At St. Thomas, the movement to raise mental health awareness started well before this week.
Last spring, Professor Tim Scully’s Advanced Videography class teamed up with Counseling and Psychological Services at St. Thomas to produce a series of public service announcements about depression and mental health.
He consulted with the director of Counseling and Psychological Services, Jeri Rockett, Ph.D., L.P. “I’ve worked with her before through working with PSAs, and often she will refer me to someone on her staff who is interested in the area,” Scully said.
Jacki Henry, a doctoral intern with Counseling and Psychological Services at the time, quickly jumped at the opportunity to help out and raise mental health awareness.
“We only see people if they come in voluntarily or if someone on campus referred them here, so we miss a lot because we’re not with people all the time,” Henry said. “The message is that everyone can do something to prevent suicide.”
Scully tasks students with making PSAs in his video production class and the topic changes from year to year. In nearly 20 years of teaching the class at St. Thomas, Scully said he’s had his students do PSAs on everything ranging from homelessness to women’s health, from poverty to heart disease. This year he heard about a national competition for college students to create PSAs about suicide awareness and used that as the topic.
“This year (Scully) organized it around this competition, which was for college students to produce a PSA for suicide prevention. Because there was this national contest, he thought it would be good to have students be able to submit to that,” Henry said.
Scully said that his students were enthusiastic about the project right from the start.
“They were excited about it, so I had (Henry) act as a client,” Scully said. “She came to class and talked about the issue and sensitive areas (and) language.”
After Henry visited the class, students were assigned to compile the information and create a PSA outline.
“The students were really enthusiastic, I thought, and it was great to see Tim really encourage them to treat this like a real job where I was the consultant and they had to first show me an outline,” Henry said. “The next phase was shooting an initial pilot, and I viewed that and gave feedback, so it was very much an interactive process.”
Having Henry as a client, students were able to work and interact with her, and they were learning professional skills necessary to work on almost any video product outside of the classroom, Scully said.
“This will be really good for (students) because if they go on to work in video … they need to have a portfolio, and this kind of thing is something that many production houses do,” Scully said. “I kept doing this because I thought it was so important for students to understand how to work with clients and also to give back to the community.
“The thing that (students) learn from the PSAs is that it’s a very short format, only about 30 seconds long, so they have to be very careful with each image, each word, each sound to be able to make it meaningful,” Scully said. “I (told) the students … ‘You guys are talented. You did some nice work, but please don’t forget how important it is to communicate effectively.’”
After students finished their PSAs, Scully let them decide whether or not they wanted to submit their video to the national competition. Most of the students decided to submit their videos, and two students, Matt Kopp and Giselle Garcia-Castro, won the competition for the PSA that they created together.
Henry said she was happy with the quality of the videos that the students created, and hopes that the PSAs can reduce the stigma behind mental health and create change on campus.
“In all three PSAs, there is a peer-to-peer element in them,” Henry said. “I think it is important that students are seeing themselves as agents for promoting mental health, at least on the front lines.”
With 30 percent of college students experiencing serious depression at some point during four years of school, National Suicide Prevention Week can be the time to reach out and start working to end the stigma behind mental illness.
“It’s really important for students to ask if they’re concerned about a friend … because all these myths that if you ask someone about suicide then that puts the idea in their head… that’s a myth,” Henry said. “We want people to ask the question because that’s often a relief to someone who’s struggling with thoughts of suicide.”