Training sessions for suicide prevention were not provided to incoming first-years during the New Student Orientation Program last week despite broad, ongoing efforts by administrators to expand mental health programming on campus.
Such training was, however, extended to orientation and pre-orientation leaders, many of whom said they were grateful to be more readily equipped to identify and address warning signs of suicide. The training was a pilot program for leaders from Columbia Urban Experience, Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program, International Student Orientation Program, and NSOP.
But while some NSOP sessions covered general wellness and stress management, many first-years completed the week without preparation to identify or address mental health crises in their peers—a type of training that suicide prevention experts have recommended be a part of orientation.
Following a string of student suicides last year, administrators have vowed to seek out new ways to introduce wellness programming and gatekeeper training across the student body. In an email sent to students in February, Dean of Columbia College James Valentini stressed NSOP as a key period for such implementation.
“There are clearly more steps we need to take together,” Valentini wrote, after outlining efforts to improve mental health on campus. “We will also develop ideas for new types of wellness programming, during NSOP and throughout the academic year.”
Valentini later spearheaded a mental health steering group that will partner with the Jed Foundation, a suicide prevention nonprofit, to analyze health resources at Columbia and make recommendations. That steering group has yet to publish any recommendations, however, meaning it did not directly affect this year’s NSOP programming.
Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm said that administrators planning NSOP focused on training student leaders who would in turn speak about mental health to first-years, rather than create suicide prevention training for incoming students.
“We’ve been looking for ways to make NSOP programming more community-oriented than it’s been in the past,” Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm said. “We want to strengthen ties between new students and leaders in addition to giving them the information they need.”
Conducted by Alice! Health Promotion along with Counseling and Psychological Services, the training taught the best practices for responding to and providing referrals for students undergoing mental health issues. In addition to being provided insight into afflictions ranging from anxiety to suicidal ideation, leaders were also given example scenarios mirroring real-life situations to act out and work through.
“I do think they [the scenarios] were helpful, because that’s about the closest you can get to a real-life situation,” COÖP leader Meridith Wade, CC ’19, said. “It’s helpful to practice dialogue that you would use and to practice your reactions to a situation in the event that somebody does come to you and says something that may be alarming.”
Despite this additional programming, however, NSOP still lacks suicide prevention or gatekeeper training catered directly to first-years. Aside from Live Well. Learn Well., which imparts first-years with stress management strategies, and the introduction of wellness rooms, safe spaces for first-years to go to during NSOP, first-years receive almost no instruction specific to mental health awareness.
“I don’t really remember them specifically focusing on [treatment for mental illness],” Grace MacNeill, CC ’21, said. “I feel like there was mostly a focus on drinking and stuff like that.”
Some student leaders feel uncertain about how they would respond to a first-year mental health issue after attending a single, two-hour training program.
“They didn’t really focus on how an OL, a person who only really spends a week with these kids and is basically the same age as them, should respond to these issues in a practical manner,” Orientation Leader Bernadette Bridges, CC ’19, said. “It feels like we’re not actually their peer advocates, we’re just like their walking, talking resource guidebook, telling them what numbers to call.”