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Thousands of students will start their first semesters in colleges across Western New York next week.

Many of them will adjust easily. Many will struggle to navigate this milestone in their lives. A few will experience their first onset of a mental health condition.

Joan McCool and her staff hope to touch the lives of SUNY Buffalo State students who fall into each of those categories.

In some cases, the stakes will be huge.

McCool, a Springfield, Mass., native, will start her 34th school year in the Buffalo State Counseling Center on Monday; she’s been director for the last 16 years.

She and her staff are entering the third year of a suicide prevention program called Buffalo State Cares and a life-saving strategy coined QPR, a term she hopes one day will harbor the same familiarity as CPR.

The acronym – for question, persuade and refer – is designed as a simple strategy to try to reach someone who may be contemplating suicide.

“After spending decades in the field, I can see the help students can get if they come in on time or someone refers us on time – it’s lifesaving and so life-enhancing. They can get to graduation and go on,” said McCool, 60, who came to Western New York in 1976 to get her doctorate in counseling psychology at the University at Buffalo after graduating from Cornell University.

She started at Buffalo State in 1981 and oversees a staff of 11 on the second floor of the Health Center building.

What is your mission?

We teach coping skills, how to stay afloat at college. We’ve all chosen to work at a college campus because we love the population. We have an opportunity to teach. We’re very close to the students. We do individual counseling and group therapy. We do workshops. Our motto is ‘support, education and advocacy.’

We do a lot of crisis management. Feeling connected makes a big difference. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in this age group and it’s also deemed preventable if people recognize some of the signs. My goal is that more and more people are trained to recognize those signs and are not bystanders.

When you have freshmen and transfer students going into a different climate, what sort of challenges do they have?

They have one foot back in childhood or high school, and so do the parents. I’m a parent of two daughters in their 20s, and I remember myself. It’s a big change, a positive change. Students are working on their independence and identity. They’re working on intimacy. As a school, we like to provide an environment that’s challenging enough so they can grow but that also gives support. They’ve heard, ‘It’s going to be so exciting.’ But many feel lonely and homesick. That is quite normal. For that, we as a campus try to do social activities. If it continues too long into depression, sadness, anxiety, that’s a good time to call us at the counseling center – and parents can, and do, call us. The counseling center website – buffalostate.edu/counselingcenter – has tips for the transition, and suicide prevention. Anyone can go to it.

Twelve percent of all deaths of those between 15 and 24 are suicide?

Nationwide, one in 10 students say that they’ve considered suicide. Over 50 percent say they’re so stressed they can’t do their schoolwork. Our students at Buff State are pretty similar to the national average. About 65 percent say they would want to reach out to their family if they are struggling and 75 percent say they would turn to a friend. In 90 percent of suicide cases, they’re not in mental health treatment. That’s what kills me…

We do everything we can think of when students are in distress. We work as a team. We train the RAs to recognize signs. We have trained the dining services staff, police, many of the cleaning people. In the dorms and cafeteria, somebody might see something. We are teaching the community. Last week, there were about 150 freshmen in a program; we taught them to recognize signs (of depression in other students), to give hope and refer them to the counseling center. We refer them to the Suicide Prevention Line: (800) 273-TALK. There’s always help, 24 hours a day.

How does QPR work?

It is a simple method for saving a life. We encourage people to ask the question if you see signs of depression: ‘Are you thinking of ending your life?’

There are lots of ways to ask this question, but you need a willingness to listen to someone in crisis, and to help, give your full, nonjudgmental attention. Suicide is not the problem; that’s what they see as the only solution. Getting treatment for the underlying problem is the thing to do. Take your time. Say, ‘I want you to live.’ Give the person time to hear their concerns. Offer help in any way. Find out how you can help. After that, ask the following questions, ‘Will you go with me?’ ‘Will you let me get you help?’ Get a commitment from the student to go for help. If you need to, assist in arranging it.

If none of these things work, give the student referral information, try to get agreement that she will not attempt or complete suicide. If you’re concerned a student is in imminent danger, you should contact the student counseling center, university police or crisis services yourself to intervene and provide assistance. Remember to follow up.

The great thing about the 1-800 line is that you can call them as a worried parent or friend. If it’s an imminent danger situation, you called the right place. They will get help for you.

So this is an adjustment period?

Yes, it’s a big change. Most people can successfully get through it. For a few, maybe they came to college with challenges already. But again, college is a protective factor. If you take the same age group, the suicide rate in college is lower than out of college.

My condolences go out to his family and friends. He brought so much laughter and joy into people’s lives. He also suffered from depression and substance abuse. From this tragedy I would like us to learn and remember that there is always hope and there is effective help and treatment available. You are never alone with your problems. Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention by knowing warning signs and how to get help. There is always a counselor at Crisis Services (834-3131) for those in Erie County and the national number, (800) 273-TALK (8255) is for everyone.

email: refresh@buffnews.com