Gatekeeper training aims at wrong target

By By Alicia Williams

By Alicia Williams

The University of Texas conducted a survey involving 26,000 students at 70 colleges and universities across the United States and presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in August.

They reported that more than half of the students had thought about suicide and 5 percent admitted to attempting it once in their life. Fourteen percent of the undergraduates who seriously thought about killing themselves in the past year actually tried it, and half of them kept the attempt secret.

Because students are not talking about their suicidal thoughts, more campuses are stressing early intervention and asking teachers to watch and report any depressive or unusual behavior in their students.

Currently, the U’s Counseling Center offers an online brochure, “Faculty as a Helping Resource for Students,” to be used by teachers as a tool to identify early warning signs of distress in their students. The brochure lists specific problems to watch for in academia and interpersonal behavior and suggests teachers who have noticed signs in any of their students should consider intervention.

Rob Davies, assistant director for assessment and technology at the U Counseling Center said, “The purpose of the brochure is to allow faculty to know that if they have students showing up this way, they are probably distressed and you should probably talk to them and let them know that there is resources.”

The U also offers gatekeeper training, which is designed to train individuals to question, persuade and refer by recognizing warning signs and intervene quickly. Although this program has been found to be most effective with family members and friends, it also involves faculty in schools.

In February 2008, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology introduced a paper by Jeff Inman on a study called, “Randomized trial of a gatekeeper program for suicide prevention: 1 year impact on secondary school staff.” It found gatekeeper training only increased suicide identification behavior in staff members who were already communicating with students about suicide and distress. Seventy-two percent of health and social service employees had discussed suicide with students in the prior six months, compared to only 7 percent of teachers.

The main difference in the participants was their prior knowledge, training and skills in mental health issues. School counselors and nurses have extensive background knowledge from past training, and the gatekeeper training reaffirms that knowledge. But teachers who do not have this background are drastically less likely to rely on the minimal gatekeeper training when asked to profile their students.

You don’t have to be a counselor to be able to recognize signs of distress, but you do need formal education to understand how to process what you’re seeing. Otherwise every student will need an intervention at some point, because we all display some of the signs listed in the brochure at one time or another.

The study reveals teachers are unwilling to attempt profiling their students without legitimate expertise, and the gatekeeper training just doesn’t make them qualified to do so. Although the information is good to know and think about, it definitely does not give teachers the experience needed to identify a mentally unstable person, especially when they spend minimal time with them.

If the U wants its suicide prevention program to be more effective in early detection, it had better not rely on teachers to profile students. The U must realize teachers are just not going to jeopardize their positions in situations where they are inadequately trained.

Teacher training isn’t effective enough to be of use. The U should actively promote and target students to take the gatekeeper training which would drastically increase chances of early detection in friends and family.

[email protected]

Alicia Williams