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Alcohol Use, Suicide Prevention, and the Power of Peer Education

 

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Written by: Matthew Fullen, M.A., M.Div., LPCC is Program Manager of The Ohio State University Suicide Prevention Program and a Doctoral Candidate in Counselor Education.

 

Since its inception, The Ohio State University Suicide Prevention Program has trained nearly 10,000 students, staff, and faculty on the topic of suicide prevention.  We use the REACH model, which teaches participants how to Recognize the warning signs of suicide, Engage with empathy, Ask directly about suicide, Communicate hope, and Help a distressed individual access mental health resources.  We believe that educating members of our campus about suicide prevention reduces mental health stigma, encourages diverse members of our campus community to actively engage with prevention efforts, and increases the likelihood that a distressed student will encounter someone on campus who knows how to respond in a manner that could very well save a life.

Included in our REACH training is research related to the link between alcohol use and suicide. Although suicidal behavior is complex and multi-faceted, it appears that alcohol use increases the risk of suicide via two distinct paths.  First, alcohol dependence is a distal risk factor for suicide.  Alcohol dependence may indicate the presence of negative life events, additional mental health concerns, or both.  The high prevalence of co-morbidity between alcohol dependence and a mental health diagnosis places an individual at elevated risk for suicidal ideation, which in some cases may then lead to a suicide attempt.  Next, alcohol intoxication, regardless of whether or not the individual is alcohol dependent, is a proximal risk factor for suicide.  Hufford (2001) explained that when individuals who are already under psychological duress use alcohol, they may experience increased psychological distress, increased aggressiveness, and a restricted ability to identify and use alternative coping strategies.  Each of these immediate risk factors may propel a distressed individual who is considering suicide to act.

Data from the 2014 National Collegiate Health Assessment (NCHA) reveals that while drinking alcohol, 1.6% of undergraduate students seriously considered suicide (CSSL, 2014).  With an undergraduate campus population of more than 50,000 students, this equates to over 800 individuals whose risk of suicide is immediately elevated.  Creating a space for dialogue among these students and their friends is imperative.  To facilitate the discussion around suicide risk and how to reach out to a friend who may be in distress, we have enlisted a growing number of undergraduate and graduate students who are trained to deliver our REACH training to their peers.  We believe that training students as advocates for the health and wellness of the campus community is central to changing attitudes and behaviors on our campus.

A recent survey asked undergraduate students on our campus where they would turn if they needed help.  Not surprisingly, the most common response was that they would turn to a friend (85%; CSSL, 2012).  Therefore, leveraging the power of peers to promote health and prevent dangerous behaviors is imperative, whether the intended outcome is changing drinking behavior, preventing suicide, or a combination of both.  As we tell students who attend the REACH training program, you are the best protective factor.

For more information on The Ohio State University Suicide Prevention Program, please visit our website at suicideprevention.osu.edu, or contact us at osusuicideprevention@osu.edu.

 

Sources:

Hufford, M.R. (2001). Alcohol and suicidal behavior.  Clin Psychol Rev, 21(5), 797-811.

The Ohio State University Center for the Study of Student Life (CSSL). (2014). Trends in Alcohol Use Among Ohio State Students: A Comparison of the 2009 and 2014 NCHA.

The Ohio State University Center for the Study of Student Life (CSSL). (2012). Undergraduate student profile: Wellness.

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Sanda Gibson
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Hey Matt, I was doing some research and discovered your work. Wonderful to see you are doing such important work.

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