A new law to help prevent suicide by students at New Jersey colleges brings needed attention to an important campus issue, school administrators said, while also giving them support to expand services.
Gov. Christie last week signed into law the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, named after a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student from Bergen County who killed herself in 2014 in Philadelphia.
"An institution of higher education shall have individuals with training and experience in mental-health issues who focus on reducing student suicides and attempted suicides available on campus or remotely by telephone or other means for students 24 hours a day, seven days a week," the law reads.
The law also requires schools to train faculty and staff to recognize suicide warning signs and to email students each semester with contact information for the trained staffers.
The law's immediate impact is likely to be small, as four-year colleges generally offer some mental-health resources and have emergency services on-call, and community colleges say they can meet requirements through partnerships with local services and availability of third-party hotlines.
More important, college administrators said, will be the greater attention paid to the issue of mental health on campus.
"I love that the state has recognized this as a public-health issue," said Angela Lauer Chong, the dean of students at the College of New Jersey, "and I love that there is commitment and leadership behind it to put it at the forefront."
At TCNJ, as at other schools, counselors have long been available in person during the day.
During off hours, those likely to encounter students in crisis — including campus police and housing staff — have been trained to respond to attempted suicide. They then determine next steps, including contacting the on-call head of counseling, calling for a local hospital's mobile crisis unit, or transporting the student to a mental-health facility.
Two years ago, the college increased and standardized its training to ensure everyone uses the same procedures, said Chong, who testified before the Legislature about the bill.
"This gives us a better ability to assess what students truly need and be able to respond proportionately to that," she said.
TCNJ, which has had four student suicides in the last five years, hired two additional full-time counselors two years ago, and last year created a 30-student peer-to-peer outreach group.
Like Madison Holleran, one TCNJ student died by jumping off a campus parking garage. Last fall, the college put signs up in parking decks listing numbers for a New Jersey crisis hotline; the school this year plans to build physical barriers to prevent jumping from garages.
Rowan University has 11 full-time counselors who rotate availability so a trained campus psychologist is always on call 24 hours a day, said David Rubenstein, head of counseling and psychological services.
Having one of the school's counselors available has several advantages over outsourcing to third-party hotlines or to campus police, Rubenstein said.
"If someone calls at 3 a.m., we're able to access their mental-health information from our counseling center, and that's very helpful."
Rutgers University is evaluating its campuses' services for compliance with the law. At Rutgers-Camden, campus police usually are the first to respond to a student in crisis, said Mary Beth Daisey, the campus' vice chancellor for student affairs. Depending on the situation, officers' options including calling for the student dean on duty or for medical assistance.
Daisey is considering other ways to further reach out to students, while also recognizing the realities of working with a largely commuter student population. One idea is to directly promote a third-party hotline to students; another is to change its orientation programming.
Victor Schwartz, the medical director of the New York City-based nonprofit college suicide prevention group The Jed Foundation, said his organization provided some advice during the legislative process. He considered the law a balanced approach to prevention.
"There had to be something that was broad enough that it was manageable and sensible for every level of school," he said. "So the idea that the school has to do something to make sure that students have some kind of access to crisis care was a good way of threading that needle, of finding that balance."
One concern of community colleges, among others, was that the original wording would have required every college have a staffer available in person.
That wouldn't have worked for community colleges, they said. In response, sponsor Kevin O'Toole, a Republican state senator who represents Bergen County, changed the language to include that someone be available "on campus, or remotely by telephone or other means."
"We obviously have to rely on professionals within the community, and the resources that are set up locally and statewide to assist a student when they're truly in crisis," said Cathy Briggs, head of student success for Rowan College at Burlington County.
The only change that the community college in Burlington County may need to make, she said, is relatively minor: create a universal, targeted email blast to students with information on available counseling and support services.
"The students' safety is paramount to us," she said. "Because a student can't learn if they're not in an environment where they feel like they're safe."