Conference focuses attention on suicide prevention in higher education

Andrew Onimus, director of corporate programs for Minding Your Mind, delivers the keynote address to the conference.

Andrew Onimus, director of corporate programs for Minding Your Mind, delivers the keynote address to the conference.

Andrew Onimus was a dean’s list student, a captain of the track team and a defensive back on the football team at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. But, in 2014 during his senior year in college, Onimus was something else as well – suicidal.

Onimus’ struggles began with anxiety, battling panic attacks and depression. He lost weight. He was fortunate to get three hours of sleep a night. And, while running and physical exercise sometimes offered an escape, he lost interest in team sports, leaving the football team and becoming isolated from others.

Onimus, who serves as a speaker and director of corporate programs for Minding Your Mind, was the keynote speaker for the 2019 Alabama Higher Education Suicide Prevention Conference, held Friday at Troy University’s Montgomery Campus. Presented by the Troy University Suicide Prevention Coalition and the University’s Montgomery and Phenix City campuses, the conference brought mental health professionals, faculty, staff, students and parents together to bring awareness to the epidemic of suicide among the college population.

Like many, Onimus initially hid his struggles until thoughts of self-harm and suicide led to a doctor’s diagnosis of depression and severe anxiety. Armed with that diagnosis and the knowledge he was not alone in his struggles, Onimus began the long road to recovery. Counseling, medication to help him sleep and, eventually, sharing his struggles with friends and teammates were immensely helpful in his recovery process.

“I went to school in March 2014 and shared with my track team why I hadn’t been there,” Onimus said. “I said ‘guys, I’m Andrew and I’m your captain. Here’s why I haven’t been here — I’m going through depression and anxiety. I have been suicidal for the last few months, and it’s been really scary.’ I really said it because I wanted to help someone and help myself. Getting it off my chest was really helpful for me. After I told them, I just sat down and started crying my eyes out. What I realized was that I was not alone. Half of my teammates came down and gave me a handshake or a hug. They told me that they have had depression themselves or had lost friends or family members to suicide.”

Bringing awareness to mental health issues and the warning signs associated with suicide is key, said Dr. Kanessa Doss, associate professor of psychology in the University’s College of Education and a co-director of Troy University’s Suicide Prevention Program.

“Awareness is key. There are a lot of campaigns that seek to reduce the stigma attached to mental health-related issues, and that is one of the things that we seek to do as well,” Dr. Doss said. “Removing the stigma helps to normalize it and make more people willing to talk about the issues with which they are dealing. When people are not willing to talk about it, they suffer in silence and don’t receive the help and support they need.”

Started in 2018 thanks to a grant from the Alabama Department of Public Health and its Bureau of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease, TROY’s suicide prevention program has engaged students, faculty members and the public in programming designed to raise awareness about the warning signs of mental health-related issues and provide resources to help individuals through those issues.

The program recently received another grant from the Alabama Department of Public Health to continue its efforts through events such as Friday’s conference.

“We have events throughout the year to help faculty, staff, students and the members of the community to understand warning signs, to reduce lethal means and help prevent suicide,” Dr. Doss said.

Other upcoming activities will include a viewing of the documentary, “Suicide: The Ripple Effect,” which highlights the journey of Kevin Hines, who at age 19, attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. The film chronicles Hines’ journey and the ripple effect it has on those who have been impacted by his suicide attempt and his life’s work since. In addition, the film highlights the stories of individuals and families who are utilizing their personal tragedy to bring hope and healing to others.

Dr. Doss said the program also plans to hold another conference and increase efforts on campus by introducing screening methods to identify those who may exhibit stressors associated with suicidality.

As for Friday’s conference, Dr. Doss said equipping people with knowledge was a primary goal.

“I hope that people are able to leave here equipped with a toolbox of knowledge to be gatekeepers to help eradicate suicide for all people and being able to help those that are in need,” she said.