Lifeline for Grad Students

February 15, 2005

For five years, graduate students facing stress or feeling suicidal have had a hotline that they could call 24/7.

On Monday, the founders of the hotline announced that they had turned it over to another group. While about 50 universities have publicized the service, many others have declined to do so because it was created by a religious organization, the Campus Crusade for Christ. The hotline organizers decided it would be best to find a secular home for the hotline, so it could reach more people.

"It breaks my heart that we were not available enough to the students who need help, so I think this is a very beneficial move for students who need a life-saving resource," said Nick Repak, executive director of Grad Resources, the Campus Crusade's program for graduate students.

He said that service currently receives about a dozen calls a month, and that about a quarter of them are from graduate students who are suicidal. He expects those numbers to rise once more campuses publicize the service.

The help line (1-877-GRADHLP) was been turned over to the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, which runs a number of specialized suicide prevention services. The National Mental Health Association worked with both groups to help bring about the transfer.

Repak said that the hotline never had a religious agenda. Students were only counseled about whatever crisis they were facing, and no information about them was ever turned over to Campus Crusade. He said he recently came to realize that "as a faith-based organization," Grad Resources couldn't reach enough students.

From his work on Grad Resources, he said, he has become convinced that many graduate students -- many of whom have significant family responsibilities on top of their academic work -- are at risk of suicide.

"The graduate student system itself creates more pressure than should ever be allowed," he said. "The fact that a single adviser has the authority and the power to scuttle the career of a graduate student creates pressure. And the financial pressures are brutal."

The helpline was designed as crisis service, not a replacement for campus counseling centers, he said.

Jackie Tyson, executive director of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, said she was pleased by the shift in the hotline. She said that Grad Resources approached her group about spreading the word about the hotline several years ago. But she said the group's board had decided it could not endorse a "faith-based service" because the graduate student population is so diverse. "We didn't want to align ourselves," she said.

She said she expected her board would revisit the issue now.

Most studies of mental health on campuses focus on undergraduates. But at the University of California at Berkeley this year, officials released a survey that found that 10 percent of graduate and professional students have contemplated suicide.

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