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Lira Fuguet, right, is among UW-Eau Claire students who are leading training sessions for their peers on mental health issues. Kaitlyn Behnke, left, makes use of the Rest Nest to de-stress and finish her homework in a quiet space.

Lira Fuguet was in her first year of college in Minnesota when she developed intense symptoms of mental illness, a health crisis that led to multiple hospital stays and a few years of outpatient treatment.

After taking time away from college to focus on her health, Fuguet — now a senior at UW-Eau Claire — is helping fellow Blugolds recognize and talk about mental health issues.

Her hope is that by educating her peers, they will be better prepared to respond when they see friends and others on campus struggling with their mental health.

“As a student, I know that my peers are more likely to talk to me or another peer about mental or emotional distress way before they talk to a professional,” Fuguet says. “That’s why it’s super important that we learn to recognize the warning signs that someone might be thinking about suicide, practice asking directly about suicidal intentions and familiarize ourselves with resources on campus.”

Fuguet, who plans to graduate in December 2020 with degrees in social work and psychology, is a student presenter in the university’s LifeSavers program, a program that encourages Blugolds to talk with other Blugolds about signs of mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

The LifeSavers program is part of UW-Eau Claire’s Suicide Prevention and Research Collaborative, a multifaceted initiative involving mental health outreach, programming, training, academics, research and policy/protocol development.

“I designed SPARC and put it into action about eight years ago to fill a gap that was missing on campus regarding suicide prevention and mental health promotion,” says Jennifer Muehlenkamp, a professor of psychology and an internationally recognized expert on suicide prevention and self-injury among young people, including college students.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details that the suicide rate among those between ages 10-24 has jumped by 56 percent in a decade.

The SPARC initiative brings together multiple campus offices, staff and resources to address students’ mental health needs.

With the coordinated approach, staff in university offices — like Housing, Student Health Services and Dean of Students Office — now have shared assessment tools and consistent protocols to guide them as they respond to students struggling with mental health problems.

While the initiative does train faculty and staff on suicide prevention, it also educates students, so they are prepared to share information with peers about suicidal behaviors, interventions and campus resources.

“SPARC continues to be very successful and is most known for its outreach programming, including LifeSavers,” Muehlenkamp says.

Peer-to-peer

LifeSavers is effective because many students can better relate to information about mental health when it comes from another student, Fuguet says.

Hearing a peer talk about mental health and suicide prevention also illustrates that it’s a topic that is relevant to young people, making it more likely that college students will pay attention, she says.

“It challenges societal stigma when students can see people just like them comfortably talking about subjects like mental illness and suicide,” says Fuguet of Minnetonka, Minnesota. “These are normally considered difficult topics in our society, but, with a little practice, talking about mental health can become as easy as talking about physical health.”

Charlie Krula, a coordinator of Student Support Services who teaches a class for first-year students, agrees.

“I believe the LifeSavers program addresses mental health and wellness, and the risk for suicidality, in a way that reduces the stigma of mental health struggles,” says Krula, who has invited LifeSavers presenters into his classroom multiple times. “The presentation humanizes the realities of suicide in our culture, and in college communities.

“It provides students the means to offer support to friends and acquaintances who are struggling, while maintaining boundaries appropriate to a peer helping role.”

Students do seem to listen and engage throughout the program, Krula says, adding that students seem to appreciate that the topic is being addressed in the classroom.

After the LifeSavers sessions, students have reached out to him to share their own personal stories about friends who have died by suicide and their appreciation that UW-Eau Claire is bringing attention to a topic that people often want to keep hidden, Krula says.

“We know that many students have been affected by loss to suicide even at their relatively younger ages,” Krula says. “A direct and intentional focus on suicidal risk helps, I think, with students becoming more confident that people can become more resilient in the face of adversity, when they experience support and draw on the courage to access appropriate care.”

Since LifeSavers was launched, more than 8,300 students have gone through the training, Muehlenkamp says. Data shows that within three months of the training, approximately 75 percent of those students say they have recognized a peer in distress and/or referred them for help, she says.

Stress-free spaces

While outreach programming is a big part of the SPARC initiative, program leaders also have created spaces on campus that are purposely designed to help Blugolds de-stress, says Christina Prust, a health educator in Student Health Service who oversees student wellness advocacy efforts on campus and coordinates the LifeSavers program.

Among those spaces is Rest Nest, an area on the fifth floor of McIntyre Library that is designed to help students relax and study without noise or distractions.

Already this semester, students have used the Rest Nest space about 70 times, Prust says.

Kaitlyn Behnke is one of those students.

With a busy schedule and a lot of academic demands, the nursing major says she’s a fan of the Rest Nest because it’s a space where she can go to de-stress but also get her homework done.

“I like to come relax and study between or after classes,” says Behnke, a senior from Brillion. “I haven’t visited the Rest Nest as much this semester due to my clinical schedule, which keeps me off campus most days, but last semester I went at least once a week. I’m hoping to go more often once I finish this semester’s clinical.”

Students come to the Rest Nest to chill out, work on a puzzle, play games or to find a quiet place to study, Prust says.