Kerri Mahoney, Lara Hunter, Smita Majumdar Das, Christine Szaraz and Samantha Winter, the Center for Prevention and Outreach staff, at Stony Brook University. CPO was awarded the 2018 Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant. PHOTO COURTESY OF STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY

Stony Brook’s Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO) was one of the 20 schools in the nation to secure the 2018 Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts.

The $300,000 grant, which went into effect on Sept. 30, will be used to advance mental health awareness and suicide prevention initiatives at Stony Brook over the course of three years.

The grant was authored by Director of the CPO, Dr. Smita Majumdar Das, and Director of Planning and Staff Development for Student Affairs, Ahmed Belazi, with support from Dr. Marisa Bisiani, assistant vice president for Health, Wellness, and Prevention Services.

“Our grant is going ‘beyond the couch,’” Majumdar Das said. “We were thinking about if mental treatments have to be face to face, and individually, or can we start looking at prevention much earlier on?”

CPO is working with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to take this “beyond the couch” approach to prevention and treatment, implementing web-based services such as telecounseling and early screenings as a way for students to assess if they are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition.

The web-based services will also utilize behavioral science to try and present options for students that may help them engage in help-seeking behaviors. This includes giving students the option to have a counseling session over the phone or computer instead of in an office.

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“A big part of this grant is integrating technology, providing students with different modalities to engage with mental health, wellness, and prevention,” Majumdar Das said.

Community coordination will be a focus as well, with new Suicide Prevention Bystander training programs for students and added online training and resource guides for staff and faculty on how to recognize and refer students in a mental health crisis. Majumdar Das said that Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR), a bystander intervention training for suicide prevention, will be expanded.

“A commonly used label in this space is ‘choice architecture,’ and so that’s one of the things we’re really looking to tackle,” Belazi said. “That involves students themselves, in terms of what choices they think are reasonable for them and things they want to take advantage of. Just like telecounseling might bring support to someone, that kind of ‘choice architecture’ does a similar thing.”

Coordination with the Stony Brook community will be another focus of the grant.

“Prevention cannot be the sole responsibility of a small office,” Majumdar Das said. “It’s something that is very wide, across the campus, and everyone has a role to play.”

Majumdar Das said they plan to form a Behavior Health Advisory Task Force to formalize the many connections CAPS has, including with different hospital partners. The task force will bring them together to discuss how to create a more seamless experience for students seeking care, as well as to form new partnerships.

A Campus Prevention and Promotion Advisory Task Force, an advisory committee made of several campus partners critical in implementing various aspects of the prevention programming on campus, is also in the works. Both task forces are planned in coordination with several members of the Student Health Wellness and Prevention Services lead by Bisiani and will be comprised of both on and off campus stakeholders.

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Senior psychology major and president and founder of the Peer Mental Health Alliance, Allilsa Fernandez, said although she is happy to see that there are many more Suicide Prevention Bystander training programs, as well as more open discussion and events surrounding mental health available this semester, she wishes that more of the grant went toward mental health peer-based programs and cultural diversity.

“I think that cultural diversity shouldn’t be forgotten when creating and executing any of these programs,” Fernandez said. “We cannot forget that minorities face barriers and challenges that others may not face, such as racism, discrimination of services, low economical means to obtain mental help and higher stigma as the culture may teach strongly to ‘pray about it’ or ‘toughen up.’”

“The diversity plan, I feel, should be carried through our health care system on campus,” Fernandez said.

The grant cycle was more competitive than usual, with SAMHSA opening up grant applications to previous winners and new applicants. CPO previously received a SAMHSA grant in 2009 and has garnered a total of $2.1 million in grants from federal, state and private entities since its creation.

“The SAMHSA grant affords us the opportunity to more proactively outreach to our student community at Stony Brook, enhancing our mental health support and suicide prevention efforts,” Dr. Rick Gatteau, interim vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, wrote in a press release. “Our goal is to help Seawolves lead healthy, productive lives and eliminate any stigmas related to seeking out counseling and support services.”

“I think it’s really important for students and everyone to engage in their own mental health,” Majumdar Das said. “We go to the gym because we understand the importance of exercise in our life. Mental health is also part of our daily living, and we need to engage in healthy mental practices, just as we would go to the gym.”

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