UAlbany Researchers Receive New Funding for Study on Suicide Prevention Approaches

The School of Education is housed within Catskill, a building among those on the Academic Podium. Here, students are shown walking in front of Catskill on a clear, sunny day.
The Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research is part of the School of Education, housed within "Catskill" on the Academic Podium. Photo by Patrick Dodson.

By Erin Frick 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 26, 2023) — Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people aged 15-24 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. College students are among those known to be at especially high risk. To protect students’ mental health, it is critical to ensure that students know how to access resources to help them if they are struggling, and eliminate barriers to receiving care, including stigma around seeking help.

Researchers in University at Albany’s Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research in the School of Education have received a $306,000, three-year grant to undertake a new project aimed at reducing risk for suicide and substance use among UAlbany students experiencing health disparities.

Led by Center Director and Senior Research Scientist M. Dolores Cimini and Senior Research Associate Jessica L. Martin, the team will develop, implement and evaluate a comprehensive suicide prevention program with a special focus on students from historically marginalized backgrounds including those who identify as people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.

The work is a new branch of Project ACCESS, which stands for “Achieving College Completion through Engaged Support Services.” The first phase of the project was funded in the fall of 2021: a five-year program focused on HIV prevention among UAlbany students facing health disparities.

“This new funding will allow us to expand Project ACCESS to offer support to students at highest risk for suicide and substance use, particularly those who have been historically marginalized,” said Cimini. “Through careful screening, educational programming and referral to specialized support services, our goal is to help students take full advantage of the opportunities available to them at UAlbany, achieve graduation, continue progress toward advanced study and entry into the workforce, and experience health and enhanced quality of life.”

The new work is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant Program.

Phase One: HIV Prevention

During the first phase of Project ACCESS, student participants were invited to the project from UAlbany’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), wherein incoming students from economically and academically disadvantaged high schools are invited to participate in college preparedness programming in the summer before starting college. EOP students will remain connected with the program through their college journey.

As part of Project ACCESS, EOP students in the 2022 cohort participated in an extensive well-being screening at the outset of the program, then were taught about a range of resources to support their mental and physical health. Students were connected with “prevention navigators” — students from minoritized backgrounds and/or those with experience in substance use or health disparities — who are trained in peer-to-peer brief intervention and referral.

Follow up surveys indicate that so far, these efforts are working.

“The first phase of Project ACCESS has already seen great success,” said Cimini. “Student participants are very engaged in the program, and many have expressed via survey responses that they value the information that they are receiving and that their involvement in Project ACCESS has made a big difference in their knowledge of resources available to support them. Students also report that they are now more likely to seek support if they need it, thanks to their exposure to resources in the program.

“Our team has begun disseminating these findings at conferences across the country. We are excited to share our approach with other campuses, so even more students can benefit.”

Phase Two: Suicide Prevention and Substance Use 

Cimini’s team is now preparing to reach even more students with a focus on suicide prevention and substance use. EOP students will be encouraged to participate, with an open invitation to students from minoritized groups across campus.

The team will again enlist peer navigators to provide support and educational programming focused on suicide and substance use. Navigators are trained on skills like active listening and motivational interviewing. They are supervised weekly by program directors and hold “office hours” in accessible spaces popular with students, such as the Campus Center.

“A key feature of Project ACCESS involves embedding trained prevention navigators and peer support specialists with lived experiences, who are themselves college students representing the rich diversity at UAlbany, at campus locations in which students congregate, offering both timely response and seamless access to life skills education and referral to support services,” explained Project ACCESS Project Manager and Evaluator Jessica Martin.

Peer navigators will provide education for students addressing concerns such as poverty, homelessness and mental health and substance use-related stressors that may increase their risk for suicide and compromise their academic and career success, health and well-being.

“We recognize that many of the students we are working with come from backgrounds where seeking help for mental health concerns is stigmatized,” said Martin. “We want to make sure navigators are visible and accessible, so students can connect whenever they need to. Offering peer education and support in friendly, common spaces should also help mitigate stigma.”

Workshops and Resources

The new funding will also support classroom workshops addressing topics such as the relationships between mental health, alcohol and substance use, and how to access health and well-being support resources on campus and in the community. These will be open to all students.

Finally, the team will enhance UAlbany’s campus suicide prevention training, which is available to faculty, staff and students online, so that it is more responsive to the unique issues facing minoritized students contending with health disparities.

“The goals of Project ACCESS lie right in the name,” Cimini concluded. “We want to ensure that students have full access to the many resources that can support them through their time at UAlbany, to help them lead healthy, engaged lives and foster success in their future educational and career endeavors.

“Further, we hope that the initiatives we develop through Project ACCESS will not only support students at UAlbany, but that these programs will be replicated on campuses across the country.”

Community Resources

Confidential, free mental health resources are available to all students through UAlbany’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). To learn more or to make an appointment, visit the CAPS webpage.

In the event of a mental health emergency, students may call CAPS at 518-442-5800 any time of day or night to speak with a mental health professional.

Additional information on urgent mental health concerns is also available.

If you are experiencing a mental health concern or are considering suicide, help is available by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.