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UT has partnered with the JED Foundation, a nationwide nonprofit organization that promotes mental well-being and suicide prevention in teens and young adults. The JED Campus program aims to improve campus resources and promote campus conversations about mental health.

JED Foundation representatives visited UT in August to assess the mental health programs and resources currently available to students and to help campus officials develop a four-year strategic plan to expand and enhance programming.

Clay Culp, a licensed clinical social worker who is a staff therapist and the suicide prevention coordinator at UT’s Student Counseling Center, said the first year of the initiative will focus on five objectives for preventing suicide and substance abuse as well as promoting students’ emotional well-being:

  • Means restriction—proactively minimizing environmental risks for suicide
  • Gatekeeper training—teaching the campus community to identify, reach out to, and refer students who may be struggling
  • Postvention—ensuring an adequate and appropriate institutional response to student suicide and other student deaths and emergencies
  • Emergency response—ensuring that protocols are established for reporting and following up on emergency situations
  • Leave policies—ensuring that leave policies and protocols best support students in distress

“This program will reach people at all different levels of mental and emotional health,” Culp said.

The program will involve representatives from UT areas including the Office of the Dean of Students, UT Police Department, the Student Counseling Center, the Center for Health Education and Wellness, Sorority and Fraternity Life, Athletics, and University Housing.

Culp said the Student Counseling Center has seen a steady increase in use over the past several years.

The recent Healthy Minds Survey, a study of 800 UT students that addresses mental health on campus, reports that about 36 percent of responding students said they experience symptoms of depression. Half of these respondents said they would reach out to a friend in times of serious emotional distress, while 30 percent said they would seek help from a professional clinician.

Because of this prevalence, the center and its JED Campus partners want to educate the UT community on how to recognize mental health crises and how to respond to those who appear depressed or distressed.

Currently, students are urged to become trained in the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) suicide prevention method.

“Students are most likely to hear about these things first,” said Culp, “so we want them to feel equipped to know what to do in those situations.”

Many passionate individuals and student organizations across campus, such as Active Minds at UT, Ambassadors for Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention, and Vols for Contact, are also working to increase awareness of mental health and prevent suicide.

“We want to make sure that its’s all coordinated and that we’re pulling in the same direction,” Culp said.

Although the JED Campus program is new, many improvements have been made over the past year to mental health services available to UT students. For example, the 974-HELP line, answered 24/7, is now operated through the Office of the Dean of Students, with a mental health professional always answering after hours, on weekends, and on holidays.

The UT Police Department recently launched a pharmaceutical take back program to give the UT community a safe way to dispose of unwanted, unused, or expired prescription drugs.

In the coming months, Culp said, the Student Counseling Center will work to increase its staff in order to serve more students.

Additionally, UT now offers TAO (Therapy Assistance Online), a self-enrolled self-help program. This service is not a replacement for in-person counseling but an educational resource for students wanting to learn how to manage stress, anxiety, and depression effectively.

Culp said the JED Campus project is a proactive approach—shining the light on existing resources for students and looking for ways to do more.

“We need to be willing to talk about this difficult subject, because talking about it can save lives,” Culp said.

If you or someone you know is in distress, call 865-974-HELP (4357) to speak with someone.

Media coverage: News Sentinel, Kristi Nelson, Nov. 20;News Sentinel, Kristi Nelson, Nov. 28; WBIR, Gabrielle Hayes, Nov. 30