Mental Health Resources & Crisis Protocol
Academic Year 2022-23
Revised August 2022
Montana State University – Bozeman
Mental Health Resources & Crisis Protocol
This Mental Health protocol was designed to assist faculty, staff, parents, and students in learning about available resources for managing mental health issues and student crises. Suicide is typically among the second- and third-leading cause of death among college students (CDC, 2020). At Montana State University, we strive to create a culture of support where everyone has a role in suicide prevention, requiring a coordinated effort throughout all components of the university. Many students may not be depressed or suicidal, yet still struggle with anxiety, substance abuse, or other mental health challenges.
When students exhibit warning signs or self-identify with these challenges, it’s important that the MSU community knows how to support them and their continued academic success. Research consistently shows that support from others and getting treatment helps: thoughts of suicide decrease, symptoms are treated, hope is instilled, academics improve, and life gets a bit less distressing. Many students experience struggles at some point during their college career, many of whom reach out to a parent, friend, or trusted faculty/staff member.
Montana State University – Bozeman is committed to suicide prevention, the overall mental health of our students, and providing appropriate services for students in distress. Strengthening existing policies, procedures and prevention efforts also furthers this commitment. College mental health advocacy groups (The Jed Foundation & Jed Campus Program), the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, and the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration also recommend the creation of such protocols to further suicide prevention and enhance mental health treatment.
This protocol was written by staff members in Student Health Partners: Counseling & Psychological Services (CPS), Office of Health Advancement, & Medical Services, as well as campus partners in University Student Housing, Office of the Dean of Students, and University Police. Additional support was originally provided by the Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant #1U79SM061796-01.
Pensacola State College
College of the Holy Cross
The Campus Program
The Jed Foundation
Suicide Prevention Resource Center
Higher Education Mental Health Alliance
Whom to Call
University Police 911
Call UPD or Bozeman PD if you are concerned about someone’s immediate safety:
- If they are making statements or threats about killing themselves or harming others
- If you do not know if someone is safe based upon recent threats or current circumstances
- If they leave your presence when in crisis and you are concerned about their immediate safety or the safety of others;
- You are unable to reach someone who you know is in crisis or distress.
Law enforcement officers are trained to respond to mental health crises and can initiate a welfare check in emergency situations.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CPS) 406-994-4531
The CPS staff of psychologists and counselors is available to provide consultation to the MSU community regarding students of concern. They can also provide crisis assessment and intervention during office hours (M-F, 8-5) in their office or in any campus building. After-hours services are available to university staff who are trained in how to access on-call staff.
Office of the Dean of Students Office (DOS) 406-994-2826
DOS staff have the ability to reach out to students who may be experiencing difficulty due to personal, emotional, medical, or academic issues. They can provide necessary support and facilitate referrals for additional assistance. This is helpful if students are not improving or if they are not accessing available resources.
Warning Signs & Risk Factors
Intense sadness, depression, or anxiety
Changes in mood or behavior
Decline in academic/job performance
Poor class attendance/participation
Panic attacks in class
Irritability or agitation
Threats of harm to others
Threats of harming/killing self
Seeking means of harm/suicide-pursuing access to firearms, available pills, or other means
Verbal statements, class writings social media posts that discuss:
Loneliness or isolation
Hopelessness, worthlessness or pessimism
Suicidal behaviors, thoughts, or intention
Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
Engaging in reckless or risky activities
Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out
Increased/problematic alcohol/drug use
Problems with sleep or appetite
A sense of failure, (real or perceived)
Loss-including deaths, relationships, school, jobs, etc.
Belief that there is no reason to live or sense of purpose
Bozeman Help Center (24-hr Crisis Line): 406-586-3333
Counseling & Psychological Services (M-F 8-5) 406-994-4531
University Police: 911
Hope House: 406-585-1130
Bozeman Health ER: 406-585-1000
Dean of Students: 406-994-2826
Crisis & Suicide (24-hour): 988
Crisis Text Line (24-hour): 741741
Safe Cats App
Members of the MSU Community are encouraged to install the Safe Cats app on their phones or mobile devices. This app provides quick access to emergency resources as well as help and information regarding campus threats, support services, suicide, and referring students of concern.
Awareness and Prevention
Suicide Prevention/Gatekeeper Training
One of the best ways to prevent suicide is teaching everyone in the community how to recognize warning signs of suicide and how to intervene. Because of the prevalence of suicidal thinking among college students, and because of the supportive role everyone on campus can take as a gatekeeper to help, it is recommended that as many students, faculty, and staff as possible receive this training, and that new faculty/staff receive this training at existing orientation sessions. MSU offers several gatekeeper training options:
Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR)
QPR is a 60-minute presentation that teaches how to recognize warning signs and risk factors for suicide, how to instill hope, and how to refer a suicidal person to appropriate mental health care. CPS provides QPR training at various times throughout the semester to the campus community, and is also available to present to faculty/staff/organizations to provide the training for smaller groups.
Kognito Online Training
MSU subscribes to Kognito, online training modules for both faculty/staff and students that teaches how to recognize and respond to someone who may be experiencing distress or suicidal thinking. It is a web-based module that can be accessed at home or office at:
Faculty/Staff Login Enrollment key: bozemanemployee
Student Login Enrollment key: bozemanstudent
Mental Health First Aid
Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour course that provides instruction on how to support someone with a mental health or substance use problem, and provide support to someone who is having a mental health crisis. Additionally, it provides evidence-based information regarding mental health and substance use problems to help de-stigmatize these issues. Those who attend the course are certified in Mental Health First Aid for 3 years.
Suicide Prevention Website
A website is available that outlines prevention efforts and resources at MSU, including risk factors, warning signs, crisis resources, and mental health counseling.
Not all students want or need on-going counseling and may just need a one-time meeting to get some input on smaller problems. Let's Talk allows students the opportunity to have a quick consultation with a CPS counselor who can provide their professional insight, as well as assist with referrals to CPS or other campus resources. Students can simply drop in at any of the Let's Talk locations to chat. There are no appointments necessary, and consultations are on a first-come, first-served basis. Please note that Let's Talk services and locations are not intended for crisis situations or on-going counseling.
[email protected] is a student success platform designed to facilitate student achievement in academics, wellness, and making connections. Students can take a brief self-assessment in three domains, then set personal goals and get linked to campus resources. Students can get the free app on phones, tablets or computers and login with their MSU NetIDs to customize their MSU experience
Project Connect is a peer-facilitated discussion group of 4-6 students intended to foster student connections on campus. Meeting over five, 1-hour sessions, students participate in a series of fun, interactive questions and activities designed to foster connection and community. Peer facilitators are trained by Counseling & Psychological Services staff.
MSU provides a wide variety of evidence-based educational and developmental programming to help students navigate their collegiate experience. This programming is designed to provide preventive intervention to help students avoid developing more serious mental health issues, or to help facilitate early intervention and treatment should students experience mental health issues or crises. Seminars on the following topics are available:
Time/Stress Management Study Skills
Coping with Depression Coping with Anxiety
Test Anxiety Substance Use/Abuse
Eating Disorders Body Image
Sleeping Better Relationships
Sexual Violence Prevention Diversity/Multicultural Issues
Relaxation/Mindfulness Physical Health
Mental Health Adjusting to University Life
Sexual Health/Sexuality Safe Zone Training for LGBTIQ issues
Career/Internship Planning Resume Writing
Financial Planning Maximizing & Motivating Learning
Many of these programs are available at various times throughout the semester, by individual appointment or special invitation to residence halls, classes, or student groups. To see what is available or to schedule a seminar for your group, contact the following offices:
Student Health Partners:
Counseling & Psychological Services 406-994-4531
Office of Health Advancement 406-994-4380
Medical Services 406-994-2311
Nutrition Services 406-994-4380
VOICE Center 406-994-7662
Dean of Students Office 406-994-2826
Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success 406-994-7627
Career, Internship, & Student Employment 406-994-4353
Recreational Sports and Fitness 406-994-5000
Diversity and Inclusion Student Commons 406-994-5801
TRiO Student Support Services 406-994-2826
University Student Housing 406-994-2661
Please also consult with advisors or program leaders within your department or organization for additional support or resources!
Becoming involved in student life is highly encouraged to facilitate social connections and engagement with the campus and community of Bozeman. There are many student organizations, clubs, activities, and volunteer opportunities:
Office of Student Engagement 406-994-2933
Office of Health Advancement/Wellness Coaching
The Office of Health Advancement (OHA) educates, empowers, and energizes the MSU community to thrive through a balanced lifestyle. OHA promotes generalized well-being by educating on topics such as sexual health, nutrition, physical activity, stress management, as well as the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs which are all related to one’s mental well-being. Wellness Coaching can be a great resource for students who are looking for additional support around well- being goals, such as coping with stress, finding balance, working towards nutrition or activity goals, building time management skills, and anything related to health, wellness, or wellness-related behavior changes. OHA also offers classes in KORU and Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR). Koru mindfulness is specific to the college aged student, is taught in small diverse groups, is focused and brief, provides self-calming skills and uses active teaching with language that will resonate with a college student. Koru can even help improve the ability to pay attention, improve decision making skills and increase overall quality of life. The Bounty of the Bridgers Food Pantry is available for students who may need additional support with basic food needs. The Center for Students in Recovery hosts AA & NA meetings to support students in recovery.
Reducing Access to Lethal Means
Research suggests that reducing access to lethal means is one effective strategy within a comprehensive model of suicide prevention. While we can’t make the entire campus “suicide proof,” we do look for ways, when possible, to reduce access to lethal means for suicide. Firearms are not allowed on campus at any time, except for storage at UPD. Safe weapons storage is available at UPD and can be arranged by calling their non-emergency number at 406-994-2121 or accessing the UPD Weapons Storage page.
There are two locations for prescription drug drop-offs for unused or outdated medications: one at University Police and one in Medical Services in the Swingle Building. The MSU Pharmacy also has medication disposal packs available free of charge. Students are encouraged to avail themselves of these services, not only for their own safety but also for the safety of roommates and friends. When students in treatment are at-risk for suicide, means reduction is part of safety planning with their providers.
Identifying Students At-Risk & Accessing Clinical Services
There are multiple venues in which a student may be identified as being at risk for distress, crisis, or suicide, either by self-identification or identification by a concerned party. When such students are identified, MSU staff strives to get help and support for them as soon as possible. This typically involves facilitating access to mental health care at CPS, or a referral to the appropriate campus/community agency for clinical services and case management. MSU students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to reach out and ask students about whom they feel concerned if they are having thoughts of suicide.
Screening for Mental Health Issues
There are multiple venues for students to be screened, either anonymously or in person, for mental health symptoms:
Online Screening Program:
MSU subscribes to an online screening program through Mindwise. Students can take a screening for depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. The link is customized to provide MSU-specific information and crisis referrals.
Students can be assessed for any mental health or substance use challenge at Counseling & Psychological Services, Medical Services, or INSIGHT.
Substance Use Education/Screening
Required online Prevention Education:
All new incoming students are required to complete AlcoholEDU, Sexual Assault Prevention and Achieve. These modules provide basic education on use and behavioral intention, and provide referrals to corresponding campus resources.
The Insight program is the alcohol and drug assistance center that is open to all MSU students, either by self-referral or by referral from an MSU Office, department or the local court system. Insight provides a voluntary, confidential resource to assist all students who are impacted directly or indirectly by chemical abuse.
Center for Recovering Students:
The INSIGHT program is the alcohol and drug assistance center open to all MSU students, either by self-referral or by referral from an MSU Office, department or the local court system. Insight provides a voluntary, confidential resource to assist all students who are impacted directly or indirectly by substance misuse/abuse. The INSIGHT program also provides alcohol and drug education related to risk reduction, medical amnesty, tobacco, vaping, and marijuana.
University Police (UPD):
As first responders, UPD officers are trained to respond to students at risk, how to access emergency services, and how to refer to appropriate emergency and after-care resources. UPD can be contacted in the event of an emergency when a student’s life is in immediate risk, or the safety of others is in immediate risk. UPD may also be called when the level of risk is unknown or a welfare check is desired. UPD can provide risk assessment and facilitate further assessment by Counseling and Psychological Services or the community Crisis Response Team (CRT), as well as transport a student to the Emergency Department or Hope House. UPD staff can schedule a student into the 1:00pm CPS crisis hour if they interact with a student after-hours who may need mental health support. UPD can also notify the Dean of Students for follow-up and after-care following a crisis.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CPS) at Student Health Partners
As the mental health agency on campus, CPS is aware of students at risk when they present to CPS, either by self-referral or referral by a concerned party. CPS staff members follow appropriate legal and ethical guidelines when managing suicidal or mental health crises, and will manage crises in accordance with best clinical practices. This may include creating a safety plan with a student, obtaining releases of information to consult with individuals/agencies who may be supportive, or, in rare cases, breaking confidentiality as allowed by law to protect the student or others. To access CPS services:
During CPS Business Hours (M-F 8-5):
CPS can always be contacted to provide support, guidance and consultation regarding an at-risk student. Students in imminent risk can be scheduled for a same-day appointment. Referring parties can call CPS or walk a student in to the office to request an appointment. CPS staff will assess risk and create a safety and follow-up plan that best meets the needs of the student. CPS staff will attempt to obtain a release of information to follow-up with the referring party to provide some additional support and closure about the student’s well-being.
CPS After Hours Services:
CPS provides 24-hour on-call services to the MSU community to provide consultation regarding students at risk or university crises, as well as on-site assessment or crisis response. Residence Life, UPD, clients, and other staff or administrators can access on-call services by calling the Bozeman Help Center at 406-586-3333 and requesting contact with the CPS on-call staff.
Medical Services at Student Health Partners:
Medical Services routinely administers the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-2) to students arriving for medical care, and based upon assessment results, the PHQ-9, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale (GAD-7) is administered.
Students presenting with symptoms of depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation may be referred to CPS, followed by Medical Services providers, or jointly followed. As medical providers, Medical Services clinicians are trained to assess/manage risk, and may refer to CPS or appropriate agencies for further assessment or follow-up care if needed. Medical Services uses case management and medication treatment to provide ongoing care for students with diagnoses of depression or anxiety. Medical staff works closely with CPS to facilitate warm hand-offs and effectively treat mental health symptoms that may emerge in a primary care setting. They also have a psychiatrist and psychiatric nurse practitioner on staff to assist with complex cases. Located in the same building, Medical Services and CPS are integrated as University Health Partners, which facilitates easy communication, consultation, and referrals. A student calling the Medical Services main number (406-994-2311) after regular hours has the option to talk to a free nurse advice service. These nurses work off national protocols and would refer the student to local resources depending on the urgency of the situation.
** In response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Medical Services has moved to an appointment-only based scheduling system to provide safer patient flow by decreasing large numbers of students in waiting rooms and other common areas. Appointments are made by calling (406) 994-2311 and can be for scheduled, ongoing care such as follow up of depression or anxiety; or same-day appointments for acute injury or illness. If there is concern for COVID-19, students will be scheduled to be evaluated at Medical Services or through drive-through clinics run by the Bozeman Health system. Upon arrival at the UHP building (Swingle), students are asked to call again so they can be met at the front door, masked, and have their temperature checked. **
Office of the Dean of Students (DOS):
The DOS office is often notified of students at risk from other campus personnel, students, family members, or community members, either by phone, email, in person during on-call hours, or through an electronic report. They also receive incident reports from Residence Life and University Police. The DOS office follows up on notifications of a student thought to be at risk by requesting that the student come in to meet with a member of the DOS, most often the Assistant Dean of Students for CARE or the DOS Case Manager. Following such a meeting, the DOS determines whether the student should be added to the BIT Team list and requests releases to the appropriate resources (such as Medical Services or Counseling & Psychological Services). The DOS makes referrals to CPS to facilitate assessment and treatment for those at risk of suicide, or those who would benefit from counseling. At times, the DOS personnel will walk a student to CPS to be seen for a crisis or urgent appointment. The BIT Team discusses and tracks students who may be at risk.
In situations where an at-risk student is not willing to seek CPS/campus services, the DOS can be contacted to initiate contact with the student of concern. DOS staff can invite them to a meeting where a referral to CPS or appropriate campus agency can be made. The DOS Office has an on-call staff member available each day to meet with students. DOS staff often reach out to parents or other agencies to support students who are suicidal or in crisis. DOS staff can also be contacted to consult about options for support or to share concerns.
University Student Housing:
Housing staff is required to be trained in QPR and crisis response, and many are also certified in Mental Health First Aid. They receive training in making referrals to counseling/campus agencies, as well as in crisis intervention procedures and after-hours crisis call options. They may also walk students to CPS for same-day appointments or request a CPS staff member to come to the residence hall if the student needs to be assessed on-site or is unwilling to come to CPS. If they are aware of a suicide attempt, they are trained to follow up with the student and offer an expression of concern, as well as the offer to help the student access appropriate resources such as CPS and DOS.
The Hope House, Bozeman’s crisis stabilization unit, may also identify students at risk when they present there. Students may self-refer to Hope House for crisis stabilization, or they may be referred there by other clinicians/agencies. Students who are current clients at CPS will be asked if they are willing to sign a release of information to facilitate after-care, including appointment scheduling and disclosure of records. All MSU students who present at Hope House are asked to sign a release of information for the DOS in order to initiate support services, including assistance with classes and referrals to CPS, Residence Life, or other campus agencies.
Emergency Department (ED) or Crisis Response Team (CRT):
Students who are evaluated by the ED or CRT who are deemed safe to be released are referred to CPS for after-care. ED and CRT staff obtain appropriate releases of information and fax appropriate records. CPS has a standing 1:00 crisis hour that ED/CRT staff can directly schedule for students, so a next-day appointment is in place for them upon discharge.
Bozeman Help Center:
The Bozeman Help Center staffs a 24-hour crisis line, as well as provides community referrals. If an MSU student calls the Help Center, they can be referred to CPS or receive crisis response or support as needed. Staff and volunteers at the Help Center offer anonymous support and crisis response and many students access support through them.
The MSU VOICE Center:
The MSU VOICE Center staffs a 24-hour support line for those who have experienced sexual violence as primary or secondary survivors. They are trained in how to handle related crises, including referrals to CPS and how to manage callers who indicate suicidal ideation.
MSU Veteran Services:
Veteran Services staff members have experience in working with complex issues veterans face. They often identify veterans who are at risk and provide referrals to CPS, campus agencies, and options in the state or within the Veteran Affairs Administration. Additionally, CPS has a dedicated counselor as a liaison to Veteran Services to facilitate counseling and programming to veteran students.
Faculty or staff members may learn of a student in distress in various ways, such as through conversation, student writing, or class assignments. Faculty and staff members can contact CPS or DOS staff for consultation about their concerns and how to facilitate a referral, or they may walk the student to CPS to schedule an appointment. They can also call UPD to conduct a welfare check.
Friends, Family, or Community Members:
Those closest to students at risk may see signs of distress before others do. Students at risk often turn to trusted friends, family, or mentors when experiencing a crisis or distress. Friends and family can call CPS to consult about how to help the student access appropriate resources. They can also call the DOS for assistance in reaching out to the student, or to UPD to conduct a welfare check. If the student of concern lives on campus, University Student Housing staff can also be contacted to facilitate a welfare check and referral to campus support services. Friends, family, or community members can contact Insight for support or referrals for students involved in substance misuse/abuse.
Campus Assessment, Response, and Education (MSU CARE)
Nationally, college campuses are seeing growing trends regarding more serious mental health issues and increased unsafe behaviors leading to harm or death. As a result, MSU has created the MSU CARE program. In order to promote the safety and wellness of the University community, the MSU CARE program addresses behaviors that are disruptive or concerning, which may include mental health and/or safety issues.
MSU CARE has two multi-disciplinary teams: A Behavioral Intervention Team for higher risk individuals or situations, and the Care Team for lower-risk situations. Both are comprised of university officials with the responsibility of discussing, assessing, and responding to reports of students who are demonstrating disruptive or concerning behaviors. A core group of members meets to assess issues of safety and welfare, and the team is designed as a centralized entity that is proactive in providing swift, coordinated, caring, and developmental interventions to members of the campus community prior to, or following, a crisis.
The MSU CARE program balances the individual needs of the student of concern and those of the greater campus community. A student of concern is any student who demonstrates disruptive or problematic behavior, expresses personal difficulties that interfere with personal or academic functioning, exhibits mental or emotional instability, or otherwise causes members of the campus community to feel apprehension for their own safety, the safety of others, or the safety of the student of concern.
The BIT/CARE teams address cases in a structured and positive way to minimize “fragmented care,” enact supportive resources, curtail the disciplinary process, and recommend a plan of action that may include reaching out to the student of concern to offer support and resources. They will also offer follow-up meetings with faculty, staff, and students (as appropriate) to provide ongoing coordination of care to enhance the safety and success of the student of concern. If it is appropriate, they may include other family members or parents of the student to assist in coordinating care.
Referrals to the MSU CARES program can be made by any faculty, staff, student, or community member who has a concern for a person’s safety or welfare. Reports can be made directly from the Safe Cats app, or by filling out a Care Referral form.
If necessary, reports can be taken anonymously. In the case of a report of imminent or unusually high risk, a Threat Assessment Investigator with UPD will handle the case and consult with appropriate MSU staff, faculty, or administrators. If you have any questions about the MSU CARE program or threat assessment, please call the Office of the Dean of Students at 406-994-2826.
Students who are experiencing an acute mental health crisis, or students who have experienced mental health issues that have impaired their physical, emotional, or academic functioning, have several options for support within the university. These options include: missing class, dropping a portion of their credits, obtaining an incomplete, withdrawing from the university, obtaining a voluntary medical leave of absence, and/or working with MSU’s Office of Disability Services to discuss the possibility of reasonable accommodations. Anyone interested in learning more about these processes can call the Office of the Dean of Students for assistance.
Documentation of Mental Health Crisis or Mental Health Issues:
As students seek assistance with their academic issues through the University, they are often encouraged to provide documentation from those with whom they have a previous or on-going treatment relationship (clinicians at University Health Partners or in the community), or from university staff who have historical knowledge of the student’s issues (e.g. Office of the Dean of Students). Please note that clinicians or university staff cannot provide documentation for past events or symptoms of which they have no knowledge or history. If a student seeks documentation by someone without this knowledge/history, a clinician or staff member can only provide documentation based upon the student’s current status and report, which may not be sufficient to document a crisis or on-going mental health impairment.
Recommended Withdrawal or Voluntary Medical Leave of Absence:
If a student has experienced an acute crisis or chronic mental health issues (e.g. severe depression, suicidal thoughts/attempts, substance use, homicidal ideation, etc.) to the extent that it disrupts personal/academic functioning, threatens the safety of self or others, or causes behavioral disruption, a voluntary medical leave of absence may be recommended. In cases when behavior (unrelated to mental health issues) is a violation of the Student Code of Conduct, students may be mandated to leave or be suspended from the university. This may be recommended by the Dean of Students, the Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT), or other university staff/faculty. This is to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of the at-risk student, as well as other members of the MSU community.
Students who wish to return to school following a mental health issue or crisis may do so. MSU values the health, well-being, and academic success for all students, and will work with students to evaluate their readiness to return to school. Each case will be evaluated depending on the unique needs and situation for each student; this may entail a meeting with staff from the Office of the Dean of Students, and/or documentation of assessment/treatment and readiness to return to school. This evaluation is to ensure that students have an appropriate after-care plan in place, which might include on-going counseling, meetings with staff in the Office of the Dean of Students, or support from other campus/community resources. Re-entry and continued enrollment may be contingent upon the student’s compliance in providing requested documentation and adherence to the after-care plan. MSU is committed to maintaining an environment free of discrimination of any type. Please see MSU’s non-discrimination policy.
In an effort to further promote health and safety, MSU has adopted a Medical Amnesty policy to encourage students to seek medical assistance for medical emergencies involving substance use. In summary: Students are expected to immediately seek assistance from medical services or law enforcement if an individual is in need of medical attention, or if someone is too impaired from substance use to seek medical help on their own. Students who seek out and fully comply with emergency personnel will not be subject to disciplinary sanctions when alcohol or drug policies have been violated.
Postvention: Responding to a Student Death or Suicide
The death or suicide of a student can have a profound, wide-reaching effect on the campus community. Estimates are that for every suicide, 135 people are impacted by that death (Cerel, 2018). That number may be even higher on a college campus with students living, working, socializing, and attending classes so closely together.
A standard, postvention protocol for responding to a student death provides support for the grief response of those impacted, helps to restore stability to the campus environment, and, in the case of suicide, can potentially mitigate the risk of additional suicide attempts, deaths, or clusters.
It is vital that individuals in the campus community receive grief counseling, crisis response, and information about grief, loss, suicide, and available counseling/crisis resources. Everyone responds differently to a loss, and many internalize their feelings and reactions and can appear outwardly “fine.” It’s important to have this information to facilitate the grieving process, let students know their available options, and curtail any crises or suicides that may stem from the initial death. Also, it lets the community know that MSU is supportive of them during this time, even if they choose not to utilize the services offered. This plan provides a protocol for responding sensitively, respectfully, and systematically in the wake of a student death or suicide, and follows postvention guidelines recommended by the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance.
After learning of a student death or suicide, the Office of the Dean of Students (DOS) will serve as a communications hub to facilitate a university response by notifying the appropriate offices/individuals. Students with the same name should also be notified to avoid possible misinformation; they should be advised to alert friends and family of their well-being to avoid unnecessary stress, panic, or worry. Representatives from the Division of Student Success are available to provide consultation to the President, University Communications, and others as needed regarding the notification of the death. See the appendix a sample email for campus notification.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CPS):
The DOS will notify the CPS Director, Assistant Director, and/or Suicide Prevention Coordinator of the student death, as well as the academic department in which the student was enrolled and any other known groups who would benefit from outreach (i.e. residence halls, clubs, organizations, etc.). If necessary, the death can be reported after-hours by using the CPS on-call system.
CPS will provide outreach (including after-hours) to those identified by DOS or other MSU staff as being impacted by the student death. This outreach includes:
- Consultation about how to notify professors, staff, or other students.
- On-site grief counseling/crisis response for faculty, staff, students.
- Information about grief, loss, or suicide.
- Resources available for counseling or crisis/suicide.
Student deaths often have a large or wide-reaching impact, so as other individuals or groups are identified, it is imperative that CPS be made aware of them so that as many individuals as possible receive this outreach.
CPS will offer on-site grief support and crisis response, as well as be available for walk-in services in the days following the student death and community notification. In the case of a student death, services will be available to faculty, staff, and students, as well as to parents/non-students (as appropriate).
In addition to educational/prevention materials regarding grief, loss, and suicide, it may also be useful to provide psychoeducational or preventive materials when causes of death include preventable accidents, alcohol/drug use, violence, car accidents, etc., as appropriate.
Student’s Academic Department
The DOS will notify the student’s academic department. This facilitates notification, as well as helps identify those who could benefit from grief counseling and crisis response. The Dean or Department Head should notify other faculty, staff, or students as appropriate. The members of that department can consult with DOS and/or CPS for support and guidance in this process. Academic Departments should work collaboratively with DOS and CPS to facilitate appropriate notification, grief counseling, and crisis response for students directly impacted (e.g., in the same classes). See the appendix for a sample email for campus notification.
University Student Housing
If the student was a resident in on-campus student housing, the DOS should notify appropriate University Housing staff. CPS, DOS, and University Student Housing staff will work collaboratively to ensure timely notification and grief/crisis response, as well as to identify additional students or groups who may be impacted.
Communication with the family should be respectful of their needs and emotions. Information about the student death and circumstances surrounding it should not be disclosed to the campus community until the family has been notified and consulted. In discussions with the family, university officials can determine their wishes regarding what is or is not disclosed to the campus community regarding the death of their student and any funeral or memorial arrangements they’d like to communicate to the campus community.
When the student died by suicide, it can be helpful to inquire if this information can be shared in order to keep students safe and to help prevent additional suicides due to suicide clusters. If the family refuses to permit disclosure of the cause of death, campus communication should read: “The family has requested that the circumstances of (student’s name) death not be shared at this time,” and usual crisis/grief materials should still be conveyed.
Campus and student media should look to CPS to provide direction on risks and guidelines when reporting a campus suicide. Because of the risk of suicidal imitation or contagion by those vulnerable to suicide, it is imperative that media follow recommendations about how to report/discuss a student suicide in order to mitigate risk. This may entail breaching typical journalistic practices by allowing a mental health professional or suicide prevention specialist to proofread a story to ensure reporting is accurate and free from language that would increase community risk. Collaboration with campus/student media can also facilitate communication about postvention efforts and educational/support resources.
Additional resources for reporting on suicide are available when covering such information in the media.
Because of college students’ high utilization of social media, it is important to consider how it can be utilized when implementing postvention strategies. Distributing educational information about grief, loss, and suicide prevention via social media can be an effective and efficient strategy, particularly when students are using social media to discuss a recent student death. Counselors and campus officials should distribute relevant information and resources via social media, as well as monitor (when possible) comments from individuals connected to the bereaved.
If individuals voice suicidal thoughts/comments via social media, or indicate acute distress, they should be referred to CPS or DOS for support. The Dean of Students Office can also be notified to enable staff to reach out to a student of concern. . If you are unsure about their safety or believe that they may be imminently at risk to themselves or others, call University Police at 406-994-2121 or 911 to initiate a welfare check.
While not an alternative to immediate, life-saving action, the following media sites have a links for reporting suicidal threats or content when identifying information may not be known: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Tumblr (select Suicide or Self-harm). Reddit also provides a feature to flag someone who is threatening self-harm and guidance for how to respond.
Memorials and Posthumous Degrees:
When considering memorial events, it is important to consider the need to honor the deceased, while also being mindful of the risk of the contagion effect with suicide. Consultation with the family, campus departments, and university organizations is encouraged when considering whether or not to hold a memorial event. Responses to a suicide death should be similar to those of other student deaths, and campus response to all deaths should be consistent. Representatives from CPS may be in attendance at memorials for students who died by suicide in order to offer resources, offer consultation to those leading the memorial about how to appropriately address the suicide, and to respond to those in distress. It is also important to recognize that grief is a natural human emotion in response to loss and not necessarily indicative of a need for professional services. Encouraging students, faculty, and staff to talk with each other and reach out for support is an important part of the grieving process.
MSU has a posthumous degree policy and if the deceased student meets the requirements, MSU may recommend to the Board of Regents that a posthumous degree be awarded.
Following a Suicide:
Public memorials, in person or online, can potentially affect the suicide risk of others by influencing survivors to imitate or model the suicidal behavior of the deceased student. When the cause of death is suicide, it is important not to over-emphasize or glamorize the state of “peace” the deceased may have found through death. The quality of the afterlife, contrasted with the emotional pain or suffering the suicidal person may have experienced, should not be emphasized in a public gathering or online: The lure of finding peace or escape through death may add the attractiveness of suicide for those who might be experiencing similar struggles. Similarly, suicide should not be normalized by interpreting it as a reasonable response to distressful life circumstances.
These risks can be mitigated by emphasizing the positive accomplishments of the deceased student, separate from the cause of death. Further emphasis can be placed on the need to support those with mental health issues, the need to remove stigma and prejudice for mental health treatment, and empowering help-seeking. The serves to motivate the community to support its members, rather than contribute to its collective guilt.
Students often turn to the deceased student’s social media pages to post comments, tributes, pictures, etc. It can be helpful to post information about available resources on the deceased student’s pages, or on the pages of survivors. Posting the National Crisis and Suicide Lifeline (988) is one way to ensure that those in need have access to a free support, around the clock, and across the nation. Notification and social media discussions should not discuss the method of suicide, or glamorize the suicide in any way.
Recommended language for social media posts:
“The best way to honor (Student’s Name) is to seek help if you or someone you know is struggling. If you’re feeling lost, desperate, or alone, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The call if free and confidential, and crisis workers are available 24/7 to assist you. To learn more about the Lifeline, visit https://988lifeline.org/”
Centers for Disease Control. (2022). Web-based injury query and reporting system.
Cerel J, Brown M, Maple M et al.(2018). How many people are exposed to suicide? Not Six. In Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
Higher Education Mental Health Alliance. (2018). Postvention: A guide for response to suicide on college campuses.