Sierra College preaches hope and health

Suicide prevention fair draws crowds with exhibits, activities
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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ROCKLIN – Sierra College was alive with activity on Wednesday for its first-ever mental health fair to promote suicide prevention.

Informational exhibits, documentary screenings, suicide prevention training sessions and creative outlets for personal expression filled the grounds at the college’s Rocklin campus from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the Alive! Mental Health Fair, a national initiative made local.

The fair was a concerted effort between the college and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, the national suicide prevention organization behind the national 1-800 SUICIDE hotline. In addition to a full day of stations and activities for student passersby between classes, the event booked information booths for more than a dozen local therapy and help agencies, with pamphlets and handouts from several more available. Trained counselors also conducted free, one-hour QPR (question, persuade, refer) student training sessions throughout the day.

Keynote speaker Reese Butler, whose wife’s suicide inspired the creation of the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, said the Alive! program revolves around four stations – graffiti therapy, a “post a secret” exhibit, a fact or fiction exhibit, and a brain disorders exhibit – to educate students, collect data on who they trust with their problems and how much they know about recognizing suicide risk factors. He cited graffiti therapy as one of the most effective gateways to treatment, because it gives students an unrestricted creative outlet to share what’s on their minds.

Butler said on one end, suicide prevention is about getting people to feel they are not alone, and on the other end, it requires training people to not only dispel myths but to ask the right questions and refer friends to the right people. He gave a speech on the history of the suicide hotline and lessons from his own life, emphasizing mental health care in general as a lifelong process of self maintenance.

“(People need) to rethink their own impressions of mental illness and disorders,” he said. “That it isn’t necessarily a death sentence.”

Butler also commended the college for paying remarkable attention to issues of depression and mental health, and hoped the Alive! Mental Health Fair would help staff fine tune its efforts.

“This campus has 100 counselors who are trained to do crisis intervention and support students. That’s unheard of in most schools. There are a handful in America that have that many,” he said. “So this kind of information is good feedback for the administration here as to what’s working, what’s effective.”

Dr. Jennica Jenkins, Sierra College mental health grant coordinator, said the fair was sponsored by a two-year, $250,000 grant from the California Mental Health Services Authority. She said Sierra College was one of 12 community colleges in the state to receive the grant in July 2012 on the condition that it spend the money on suicide intervention training for students and staff. The school recently started setting up free online training modules along with free monthly training sessions for staff and 20 peer advocates.

“Each school that was awarded the grant has to do a regional partnership forum. We did that in October. We have to do a mental health fair for students, we have to do a newsletter, and then we have to offer trainings for every employee and every person on campus,” she said. “We did research to find out how many campuses had health fairs and what the best model was, and the Alive! Mental Health Fair has been offered at thousands of colleges and it’s accessible.”

Representing Auburn Hip Hop Congress with open mic sessions at the quad, business manager Rocky Zapata said one key to accessibility is giving young people a voice instead of just a lesson.

“It’s vital that we pull together as communities to provide the support, the space, the outreach,” he said. “Music and art is therapeutic, and writing is one of the only free outlets that we have, and it’s one of the most effective ones that we have if you just tap into it.”

Waiting for her turn at the mic to share poetry, Sierra College student Jessica Dyatlov said she had personal experience with mental health issues in her own family and was glad to see students turning out for something so important.

“I think that mental illness is very important to bring to the surface, because I think that, in general, we all get distracted by other things going on in life that we ignore the most basic issues that we have,” she said.

Dyatlov’s friend and fellow student, Ciera Wilbur, wouldn’t speak for other students but said she personally saw value in the fair.

“Having events where people can express themselves like this I think is important, especially for such a good cause,” she said. “It is something that people need to be aware of, especially with all the gun violence going on recently. They’re saying it’s a lot about mental illness, and that has something to do with it … It’s important for people to know about it, and this is just a really beautiful, intense way to do that.”

By all accounts, prevention efforts can make a difference. Butler cited the example of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Mich., which had one of the highest suicide rates in the country among white males over 65 at 80 per 100,000. By using grant money to implement comprehensive suicide prevention practices, he said the organization reduced its suicide rate to zero for the past 14 consecutive quarters.

“It shows that every health system can do it, every college can do it, every community can do it,” he said.