Self-care is key for students embarking on new stage

Jennifer Forker, Guest Column
Posted 9/10/13

The state health department has confirmed what no one in the mental health services and suicide prevention fields want to see: that suicide rates …

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Self-care is key for students embarking on new stage


The state health department has confirmed what no one in the mental health services and suicide prevention fields want to see: that suicide rates have risen to an historic high in the past year.

In 2012, 1,053 Coloradoans completed suicide, representing a rate of 19.7 per 100,000 people, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s recent report. That’s the highest number in Colorado history and a 15.8 percent increase from 2011. Our state has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.

As Coloradoans, we clearly need to get ourselves educated: We need to learn how to assess for suicide risk and get comfortable talking about – asking about – whether a loved one, a friend, a colleague or a student is having suicidal thoughts.

We can do this by attending a Mental Health First Aid class, which are offered free or at a nominal cost at mental-health centers throughout the Denver area. For example, Community Reach Center offers free Mental Health First Aid courses in Adams County (find class dates by visiting; a comprehensive list of Denver-area classes is available at the Mental Health First Aid Colorado website: In the past few months, a youth module has become available that addresses adolescent mental health concerns.

How might we help our college students, in particular? Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in this country, according to the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Md., which reports that more than 1,000 deaths by suicide occur in this age group each year.

Young college students face particularly strong stressors, which may include a physical separation from family, perhaps for the first time; moving far from home; living in a strange, new environment; learning new classroom and study practices; working to pay the bills; and making new friendships. Their sleep, exercise and eating patterns may change as they navigate college life. Additionally, a pre-existing mental health concern, such as depression or anxiety, can exasperate these stressors.

If you or a loved one is heading off to college, please take note of the following self-care tips: First, stay in touch.

“Continue to reach out to your loved ones even if they’re far away,” says Katrina Buttner, MS, an adolescent therapist at Community Reach Center’s Commerce City office. “Family is only a phone call away.”

Also develop new support systems among the students and professors at your college, she advises, and get oriented to your new surroundings as soon as you can: Know the campus, the city and the resources that can support you, from a cozy café to the campus counseling center.

“It gives you a better chance of feeling comfortable in your new surroundings,” says Buttner.

Stay active, beyond going to classes and studying. Keep up with your personal interests in addition to your studies; join a campus club. Volunteering at a food bank or other non-profit may help alleviate college stress, too.

“Doing for others gives us a sense of fulfillment and purpose,” says Buttner.

And take time for yourself. College isn’t only about studying and making the grade.

“If you’re really social, you might be always on the go, always trying to meet people and do new things,” says Buttner. “But sometimes you need to take space for yourself – outside of academics. You need to be able to do something fun by yourself.”

Erica Eliassen, MA, a mental health clinician with Community Reach Center, recommends other self-care practices, such as regular exercise and journaling your feelings, which are healthy outlets for stress and anxiety.

“Don’t keep your emotions bottled up,” says Eliassen, who works with youth at the Adams County juvenile detention center in Brighton.

“Physical exercise helps people get their minds off all the stressors in their lives,” Eliassen says. “And writing about it – getting it on paper and leaving it there – it can really help, too.”

Make small goals and take small steps. College is new. Be gentle on yourself. Practice positive self-talk. If you do become overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, reach out to a professor or visit your school’s counseling center.

“Seek professional help when you know you’re not feeling like yourself or if different areas of your life – or life in general – are feeling out of control,” says Buttner. “If your mood goes down in the dumps for a period of time, if you have risky behaviors you can’t seem to stop or if you have a past history of mental health concerns or a genetic predisposition to a mental health problem … even if it feels trivial to you, just go talk with a professional.”

That’s good advice that all of us can keep in mind as we practice healthy self-care.

Finally, if you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), where help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This week marks National Suicide Prevention Week and Sept. 10 was International Suicide Prevention Day. To learn more about statewide and local suicide prevention programs and events, visit the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado website. For more support, visit the Carson J. Spencer Foundation online, including its Man Therapy site,

Jennifer Forker is PR and communications coordinator for Community Reach Center, a nonprofit mental health provider with five outpatient offices in Adams County. She is a certified instructor of the Youth Mental Health First Aid class. To find a Mental Health First Aid class, youth or adult module, visit


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