RAs face difficult decisions over student resident wellbeing

Michael Arakawa

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With a closed door preventing the Gilbert Hall resident assistant from reaching out to a student with suicidal behavior, various scenarios ran through the RA’s mind. 

Will the student accept my help? Have they already hurt themself? Do they need to go to the Counseling Center?

Not knowing what to expect if the student opens the door, the Gilbert RA knew she had to at least ask, “Are you okay?” Luckily, all the determination the Gilbert RA built up for this moment was just for her training in suicide prevention, not an actual intervention.

When they look over the halls of residence buildings, Pacific University resident assistants must be prepared for anything whether it is missing laundry or roommates fighting. However, one of the most severe scenarios an RA may encounter is when a student contemplates suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-24. This puts many college students around that age at a serious risk of suicide. A 2009 survey from Professional Psychology: Research and Practice showed that around 910 undergraduate students out of 15,010 that were surveyed said that they seriously considered suicide. The significant risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts among college students has RAs alert for symptoms.

As part of their jobs to supervise students in their designated residence halls, Pacific’s RAs are trained to identify and report students who may be or are at risk of suicide. RAs learn suicide prevention protocols to help maintain the mental and physical welfare of resident students and provide information about the health and safety of students to staff and faculty members.

“The RAs are our eyes and ears to any problems a student may have,” Laura Stallings, interim director of Pacific University’s Counseling Center said.

RAs play a major role in preventing suicides on college campuses since they are usually within close proximity of students and become first responders if they are risk. Moreover, Stallings notes that the Pacific RAs have closer connections to students than most faculty and staff. Those connections come, in part, from their extensive RA training.

RAs go through RA training and suicide prevention training in July, before the start of fall semester, to early August. The RAs are trained to identify and report scenarios that could lead to suicide. According to a former RA, Vicki Lee, the RAs in training practice role-playing scenarios with each other in dealing with symptoms such as depression, drug abuse, roommate conflict, interpersonal violence, relationship problems, sexual assault and many other situations.

“The more you talk, the more you are prepared,” Lee said. “Everybody needs to practice.”

According to a Cascade Hall RA who wishes to remain anonymous, RAs may recommend students at possible risk of suicide to on-campus resources including the Counseling Center. The center can provide counseling services for concerns of Pacific University students such as stress management, relationship concerns, academic problems, and symptoms associated suicidal thoughts.

RAs can also provide off-campus resources such as suicide prevention lines. Being able to know when to recommend resources to students helps RAs individualize scenarios.

The RAs learn to individualize every suicide scenario with a different protocol depending on the situation at hand. For example, RAs may recommend on or off-campus resources to a student if the student is just showing signs of depression. Recommending resources is for students who are at a non-immediate risk of suicide.

However, in a more serious scenario, RAs may need to call the police if a student is going to kill themselves with a firearm. This need for police intervention is when a student is at immediate risk of suicide.

RAs must be able to individualize and determine if the student is in immediate or non-immediate risk of taking their own life so they can take the appropriate measures to help the student. According to three Pacific University RAs, having the knowledge to individualize scenarios have made them confident in confronting resident students about suicide.

Despite the subject of taking one’s own life being a difficult discussion topic for young adults to bring up, Pacific’s RAs are more comfortable about it as a result of their RA training. According to Burlingham RA, Kali AnDyke, the responsibility they have to the welfare of students overshadows the hesitation they feel when they have to confront a student they believe are at a risk for suicide.  

“A second of fear is better than letting something bad happen,” AnDyke said.

When a suicide does occur on Pacific’s campus, RAs are able to lend surviving students support if they are going through difficult times. However, RAs are not allowed to discuss details of suicides that are not addressed in public college announcements due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protect personal records of students.

RAs are also not allowed to provide solutions to students who may be developing symptoms of suicide or are suicidal. That is a job for other faculty on campus.

RAs can only recommend resident students to professionals in mental health such as the staff Pacific has on call. The RAs may also send in care reports to the Counseling Center if they are concerned about a resident student.

Even when RAs cannot provide answers to a resident student’s signs of suicidal thoughts or depression, they still work to make sure the students have the resources to help themselves.

“We want to make sure that residents always have good support systems available there for them,” said a Cascade RA. “We won’t leave them without help.”

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