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SAMHSA’s Award-Winning Newsletter
May/June 2009, Volume 17, Number 3 

Gatekeeper Training: Syracuse Shares Hands-on Experience

Syracuse University’s (SU’s) experience in “gatekeeper” training for its own campus suicide prevention program is now the cornerstone of a training program for campuses across the country.

With funding from SAMHSA in 2005, the first year of the Campus Suicide Prevention grant program (see SAMHSA News online, November/December 2007), SU created a train-the-trainer program called Campus Connect. They are sharing this knowledge with dozens of college campuses around the Nation, many of whom are SAMHSA Campus Suicide Prevention grantees.

photo of two male college students walking down stairs

“We realized that investing the time and energy into developing a training that takes into account the specific needs of individual campuses and then actually training gatekeepers is the most efficient way to meet the needs of students who are in distress,” said Susan D. Pasco, LCSW-R, Associate Director of the SU Counseling Center.

Ms. Pasco is one of the counselors at SU who conducts trainings with other universities. She personally trained two mental health staffers from the University of Nebraska at Kearney (see cover story).

One of the biggest issues they address is the role of the gatekeeper, or individuals who come into contact with students and can help them get the help they might require.

“Really, we’re training people to have a basic understanding about suicide and some basic information about referrals, as well as giving advice on how to manage their own reactions when they’re dealing with someone in trouble,” Ms. Pasco said. “We’re not training gatekeepers to do suicide risk assessment.”

Ms. Pasco and her colleagues lead 6-hour workshops to train campus mental health professionals who can then conduct gatekeeper trainings with different campus personnel, including resident life staff, academic counselors, health service staff, and campus safety staff.

An important item to note, Ms. Pasco emphasized, is that their program focuses specifically on the needs of college students. “Many different suicide prevention materials are out there, and not much of them specifically talk about campus culture. It’s very different from other settings, such as a secondary school,” she said.

Specialized Support

“As adults, college students have a lot more autonomy,” Ms. Pasco said. “It’s really important to engage students in followup treatment as opposed to making them feel like its being forced on them.”

In addition, required training is not always feasible on college campuses. “Mental health professionals and campus leaders have to think about how to reach out and get faculty to understand more about their potential role as gatekeepers,” Ms. Pasco said. “You have to be a bit creative.”

Since each campus has different needs, Campus Connect allows for flexibility. “We don’t expect when people do this training that they have to use it like we do,” Ms. Pasco said. “We help each campus figure out what modifications to make so they can customize it.”

Before the SU team meets with trainees face to face, they make preliminary phone calls to get a sense of the campus atmosphere. “We also send them a questionnaire and a readiness checklist, and then we usually meet with administrative staff, such as a dean or the director of the college counseling center, to talk about implementation strategies and evaluation,” Ms. Pasco said.

Train-the-Trainer Workshops

“We walk people through the entire training and give them tips on how to do the different exercises and what material to cover on their own campuses,” Ms. Pasco said. “We also give advice about how to implement their own gatekeeper training program,” she explained.

Some of this guidance addresses how participants will handle calls from gatekeepers about students in distress—for instance, will they provide after-hours coverage? SU trainers also give some pointers about how to respond to a distressed student to ensure that that student is connected to the appropriate resources.

Experiential Exercises

The train-the-trainer format gives trainees the experience of being a participant, since they complete the same kinds of activities they’ll eventually lead as trainers.

Ms. Pasco and her team conduct five or six different exercises with the trainees. “The most important one is role playing,” she said. “They play the student in crisis and other participants practice responding and interacting.”

Other exercises include “Personalizing Crisis,” where the people in the workshop reflect back on a time when they were in a crisis and share some of the emotions they had as well as some of the helpful and less than helpful things that people around them did.

“This exercise helps gatekeepers remember that being in crisis is a human experience, because you don’t want gatekeepers being very detached from the students that they’re trying to help,” Ms. Pasco explained. “You want them to have compassion and understanding.”

Followup Support

After the training is complete, SU is available to the new trainers to answer questions about their own gatekeeper training program. Typical topics include who will be the most appropriate gatekeepers on their campus.

In addition, Ms. Pasco said, SU staff talk about how they handle issues such as policies around mandated assessments for students who present with suicidal ideation, including how to get them into the counseling center. “We don’t address specific cases, but we help them think through their policies and protocols for responding to student emergencies,” she said.

According to Ms. Pasco, the key is that if a situation arises that involves suicidal thoughts or behavior, gatekeepers need to know who to contact to help figure out the best way to intervene. “Gatekeepers never should be the ones making those decisions on their own,” Ms Pasco emphasized. “That’s why it’s so important to have a system in place regarding how you’re going to handle when somebody does present with a suicidal crisis, because you don’t want to leave your gatekeepers alone out there.”

Find out more about SU’s Campus Connect program.

Previously in SAMHSA News

Suicide Prevention: New Media Increase Options

The Grahams: Commitment to Suicide Prevention, Mental Health

Substance Abuse & Suicide: White Paper Explores Connection

Preventing Suicide on College Campuses

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