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FAYETTEVILLE -- To address rates of suicide that have risen nationally, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville offers an interactive training simulation that teaches students how to talk with those in distress.

UA in 2015 began using the role-play simulation training program created by New York-based Kognito, said Michele Cooper, the university's first full-time suicide prevention coordinator.

"Basically, what it does is it uses virtual humans to help train people how to recognize someone in distress, how to have a conversation with them that allows for free-flowing dialogue," Cooper said.

The company's website describes the training as offering personalized feedback, helping users learn through practice about appropriate interviewing techniques.

The goal is to direct students to counseling or other mental health resources, Cooper said. The online training "gives the person initiating the conversation knowledge about what resources are available on campus and off campus," Cooper said.

Cooper, a licensed clinical social worker, this past fall took on suicide prevention work full-time. She previously split her duties at UA's Pat Walker Health Center between managing cases and working on suicide prevention strategies.

The shift to full-time suicide prevention work "shows how much the program has expanded in two years," Cooper said.

Recent data, while not specific to UA, show rising suicide rates for the 15-24 age group and, among different age groups, "just generally across the board nationally," Cooper said.

A 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that, for the 15-24 age group, the suicide rate for girls and women increased to 4.6 per 100,000 in 2014, up from 3 suicides per 100,000 people in 1999.

For boys and men in the same age group, the suicide rate increased to 18.2 per 100,000 in 2014, up from 16.8 per 100,000 in 1999.

Doreen Marshall, vice president of programs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said existing data do not clearly track suicide among college students specifically.

However, "suicide is a leading cause of death for college students, and many times those students are not seen by the campus counseling center," Marshall said.

UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email that the university "does not keep a compiled or complete record" of student suicides. Rushing said deaths, regardless of cause, are noted on individual student records, but he added that not all student deaths are reported to the university.

UA has a campus counseling center, and Marshall said the trend is for schools to do more outreach.

"The idea is that the counseling center goes out to the campus and in essence brings their message to the students versus waiting for students to come seek help," Marshall said.

UA has a goal to distribute 1,800 folders to faculty and staff members, each containing information about mental health and campus services, Cooper said.

The university's Red Folder Project "is just empowering our faculty and staff to have tools to have a good conversation with our students," Cooper said.

Two versions of Kognito's mental health and suicide prevention training are offered at UA, with nearly 1,500 students, faculty and staff members completing the program from 2015, when it was first offered, through May 2017, Cooper said.

Student resident assistants must take the training, and some student mentors are taking it, too, Cooper said. UA's housing department has pledged to have all employees complete the training, Cooper said.

She said some academic units have provided the training to staff members. Among other departments, "Athletics has partnered with us in having some of their staff complete it," Cooper said.

UA pays about $23,000 yearly to offer Kognito's training, Cooper said. She wrote a grant proposal that resulted in $20,000 in funding awarded in the fall by the University of Arkansas Women's Giving Circle. Cooper said the university is applying for a three-year federal grant to expand the program, with the aim to create a smartphone app and boost other outreach efforts.

Cooper earns an annual salary of $62,199, UA spokesman Steve Voorhies said. Marshall said she wasn't sure how many schools have a suicide prevention coordinator, but she praised the university for establishing such a position.

"I think it's a very positive step," Marshall said.

Metro on 02/06/2018

Print Headline: UA program offers tools for suicide prevention

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