CONWAY — When Mary Meacham’s 24-year-old son, a University of Central Arkansas nursing student, committed suicide a year ago on March 2, it was the darkest day of her life.
“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare — to lose a child and then have to deal with complications that suicide brings in,” said Meacham, who lives in Brinkley.
She said her son, Kyle, was active in campus life, including the UCA Jazz Band, and was almost ready to graduate. He had been treated for depression for 2 1/2 years, she said, and took an overdose of his medication to end his life.
Meacham’s research about suicide led her to suggest the Out of the Darkness Walk to one of her son’s former nursing instructors.
UCA in Conway will be the first campus in the state to hold the walk for suicide awareness, said senior Scott Byrd of Conway, president of the UCA Nurses Association.
The walk is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, March 12, beginning at UCA’s Crafton Alumni Pavilion on Bruce Street.
It’s free to walk as an individual or a team, but the goal is to raise $10,000 through sponsorships or donations, Byrd said.
As of Friday, $9,553 had been raised, and 132 people throughout the state had signed up to walk.
“We’re super pumped about that, especially to be the first campus walk in the state,” Byrd said.
The event is a project of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Although there have been community walks, he said, the foundation has not had a campus walk until now.
“I’ve just had friends who have been there,” said Byrd, who didn’t know Kyle Meacham. “I’ve known people whose family members have committed suicide.
“Once you have those thoughts, it doesn’t matter how successful you are, how much you’ve got going on in school, how great your family is. It’s just a dark place, and it’s hard to get out of. It’s kind of put in the shadows and kind of pushed aside.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website reports that someone commits suicide every 15 minutes, and that it is the second leading cause of death among college students.
Byrd said the money will be put into the organization’s Arkansas chapter, and 50 percent will come back to Conway.
He said the Nurses Association would like to use the money to purchase an interactive screening program.
It would cost $5,000 initially, then a descending amount in following years.
Byrd said the computer program, developed for colleges, allows students to log in anonymously and fill out a survey. The program “flags certain answers to certain questions, and that notifies a counselor, and the counselor contacts the student — and at that point, it’s still anonymous.”
Once the counselor makes contact, the student can continue online, but “the goal is to get the student into the Counseling Center.”
“It’s more of a proactive approach than UCA has right now,” Byrd said.
“[Although] there could definitely be some benefits to it,” said Ernie Ness, director of the UCA Counseling Center, “there hasn’t been any conversation with ourselves and that group.
“I like the concept, but when it comes down to the practical applications, it raises questions.
“What would essentially be required is 24-hour monitoring of e-mail. Institutionally, there may be a way to provide the funding, but [that] still leaves the question: ‘OK, who is going to be monitoring these responses?’”
Byrd said no other university or college in Arkansas uses the computer program, but in his research of out-of-state institutions that do, “extra staff is not needed.”
Byrd said one idea thrown out was that a low student fee, $1 from each student, could be implemented to support the program.
“It seems like we could split this money among the students, and it would be doable. I don’t even know if that’s possible,” he said.
“I know it’s kind of a touchy subject, putting a monetary value on a human life, but who wouldn’t pay an extra dollar to keep their friend from committing suicide?”
Ness said colleges don’t keep suicide statistics, but he knows of three or four UCA students who have committed suicide in the 24 years he’s been director of the Counseling Center.
Although “suicide is tragic when it happens,” he said, the most recent estimate he’s seen for college students committing suicide is 1,000 per year.
“When you consider there’s 3 million or better college students in the U.S., in a sense you’re talking about a small number — but it’s an important number,” he added.
Ness said depression is the No. 1 reason students seek services at the Counseling Center.
“Of those we see who are depressed, about one-fourth will indicate they are having, or have had, suicidal thoughts,” he said.
Whether the center has prevented suicides is an educated guess.
“We can’t prove that something that didn’t happen because of something we did,” Ness said, “but I think with the counseling and therapy we provide here, ... I think it’s fairly safe to say we have had an effect on persons’ desires to live and to further goals and live their lives.”
Ness said the stigma of seeking counseling seems to be fading.
He said that four or five years ago, the UCA Counseling Center saw 400 individual students; this will be the third year it has served 600-plus students.
“What we find here — students who have been to counseling here will tell other students they’ve been to counseling. They’ll say, ‘Well, my friend was seeing somebody here.’”
Faculty refer 18 percent to 20 percent of the students, too, Ness said.
“We have good working relationships with faculty and staff on this campus,” he said. “They take an interest in students as human beings.”
Ness said he believes the Out of the Darkness Walk is a good idea.
“One of the things I like about it is that it raises awareness and calls attention to suicide and people who may be suicidal, and they may be able to talk more openly about it and be able to identify resources available,” he said.
“I’m proud of this group for doing this,” Mary Meacham said. “They are all very, very busy kids, and they work and go to school.
“When you start going and trying to understand how this could happen, you latch onto things that you think, ‘This could help.’ Helping others makes you feel better.
“It is something positive that I could put my energy toward and remember Kyle, also.”
To participate, become a sponsor or donate to the effort, go to www.campuswalks.org and click on UCA Campus Walk on the right. For more information, call Byrd at (501) 470-8981. Online registration closes at noon Friday, March 11, but participants may register at the walk beginning at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, March 12. Byrd said donations will be accepted through Thursday, June 30.