Several activities at Missouri State University-West Plains (MSU-WP) during the month of September gave students a better awareness of the stressors that can lead to thoughts of suicide. They also gave students some practical coping skills they can use when they or someone they know feels overwhelmed.
Lauren Willis, the university’s case manager/counselor, developed the activities as part of Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. Willis was hired by the university a year ago as part of its professional services program to support students during their educational journey at MSU-WP.
“My motivation for these activities was to really bring to light just how common it is for students to struggle with suicidal thoughts and to let them know we’re here to be a support for them,” she explained.
“I also wanted to bring more attention to the mental health services we offer to students,” Willis added. “A lot of students miss the fact that we have so many professional services available to them.”
Help is available
Through MSU-WP’s partnership with Ozarks Healthcare, students can obtain free counseling services as part of the common fee they pay, Willis said.
The university also offers an app, My SSP, free to all students. The app gives students phone and text access to a licensed therapist in the state of Missouri 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students can set up short term video counseling through the app and access articles, podcasts and videos on different mental health topics for additional support, Willis said.
In addition, struggling students can reach out to one of MSU-WP’s new student mental health advocates. Willis said several members of the student body recently attended a one-hour training session to learn how to listen and help fellow students who may be struggling with their mental health. Students who completed the training received a purple bandana they can wear or attach to their backpack.
“The bandana indicates to other students that this person is a safe space, someone they can talk to,” she explained. “It helps decrease the stigma of mental health and creates an environment on campus that is empathetic and welcoming to all who struggle with their mental health.”
Willis said the student mental health advocate program will continue beyond September, adding she has received several responses from students who want to be a part of the program.
More about the activities held
The month of activities began Sept. 7 with a suicide prevention lunch and learn session at Hass-Darr Hall. A second session was held Sept. 14. “With the lunch and learns, my hope was to educate students on the topic and the steps they can take if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or if they know someone who is feeling that way,” Willis said.
Several coping skills classes were held throughout the month. They included yoga on Sept. 12 at the amphitheater, mindfulness and meditation on Sept. 19, painting on Sept. 20 and money management on Sept. 27, all of which were held at Hass-Darr Hall.
“The coping skills workshops featured activities that are known to help alleviate stress,” Willis said. “Painting and yoga have long been known to help mental health and learning how to manage your money wisely helps reduce financial stress.”
The month of activities concluded Sept. 28 with a car smash in the north parking lot of Lybyer Technology Center. “The car smash was something fun that would allow students to alleviate pent-up tension and stress as we draw close to midterms,” Willis explained. “Sometimes we hold in stress, and the car smash gave them the opportunity to let loose. Several of them indicated how much better they felt afterward.”
Students were allowed to spray paint the things that were stressing them out on the vehicle, which was donated for the event by Hughes Towing of West Plains, then pound them away. They also could spray paint messages of encouragement or words of affirmation, Willis said.
An impactful representation
In addition to the activities, Willis provided a visual representation of the impact of suicide by setting up a display of 130 pairs of shoes in all shapes and sizes in Hass-Darr Hall to represent the number of lives lost each day to suicide.
“I wanted to find a way for students to understand just how big a number 130 is,” she said. “It was very impactful, even for me. Seeing the different types of shoes helped the students understand these struggles come from all walks of life.”
The shoes were loaned to the university for the project by Christos House resale shop. Christos House provides services to area residents suffering from sexual or domestic abuse. Proceeds from items sold at the shop on Jefferson Avenue support their efforts.
A successful event
Overall, Willis said she was pleased with the activities and student participation. “I think it went well. We had a moderate amount of attendance at each event,” she said. “I think it helped students not only understand the importance of suicide and the impact it has on our community, it also gave them tools they can use to help themselves or others.”
Students received the message. Willis said she saw an increase in the number of students who reached out to her for help during the month.
It also increased the number of students wanting to join HOPE, the student organization established to help bring awareness to the mental health issues students face. The group met for the first time this year in September, and membership at that meeting nearly tripled from last year, said Willis, who is the group’s sponsor.
“We want to continue doing activities and events that bring awareness to mental health issues throughout the year,” she said.