Committee Members Embrace Suicide Prevention Week

Sharon Mendes, left, with Officer Justin Cheney '07 (CLAS) and the police department's community outreach dog Tildy, and Paul Hanlon '15 (BGS), '17 MS, '19 MBA at the Student Union on Sept. 18, 2018. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Sharon Mendes, left, with Officer Justin Cheney '07 (CLAS) and the police department's community outreach dog Tildy, and Paul Hanlon '15 (BGS), '17 MS, '19 MBA at the Student Union on Sept. 18, 2018. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A large organization like UConn has many committees. Committees to study this, committees to do that. At times, the structure may seem bureaucratic. But one committee whose members care deeply about its mission and the people they affect is the Suicide Prevention Committee.

Run by the Division of Student Affairs, and led by Erin Cox, assistant director of outreach at Counseling and Mental Health Services, the committee comprises more than 30 members from offices, academic departments, and student groups. They meet monthly throughout the year to develop campus programming and events, and work to uphold the motto “Connection is Prevention” by fostering real, in-depth conversations about mental health.

A major initiative of the committee is UConn’s Suicide Prevention Week, which takes place this year from Sept. 20 to 27. The week is loosely aligned with National Suicide Prevention Day, which was held on Sept. 10 this year.

The members of the committee are deeply invested in the cause and for some, it’s highly personal.

Paul Hanlon ’15 (BGS), ’17 MS, ’19 MBA is a program assistant in the Office of Veteran Affairs and Military Programs. He knows about the pressures that military members face upon their return to civilian life. And he also experienced loss personally, when his teenage daughter Grace was killed in a car accident two years ago while he was at the wheel.

“Humans, by design, are social animals and rely on each other on some level to go forward,” Hanlon says. “When people realize how much positive energy there is to gain from one another, they can go forward. My wife and I realized we needed a community effort to go forward after we lost our daughter.”

Hanlon credits Cox and Betsy Cracco, the director of Counseling and Mental Health Services, for the open communication that exists on the committee.

“Talking about suicide and depression and anxiety is not always socially acceptable,” says Hanlon. “Betsy and Erin talk about these topics in a way that is informative and instructional. They do it in such a manner that the conversation, although still serious, is not so heavy that it’s scary to have others talk about it.”

He says knowing that others have been able to move forward and get past their losses can give people hope: “If being on this committee can change someone else’s future, maybe help persuade them in a different direction, it’s time well spent.”

Officer Justin Cheney ’07 (CLAS) of the UConn police department is another member of the committee. His career path to the UConn police was partly inspired by the suicide of his best friend’s older brother 10 years ago.

“It had a big impact on me,” said Cheney. “The main goal of a police officer is to help people. I used that suicide as a springboard to do more good and pursue helping people.”

A native of Mansfield, Cheney joined the UConn Police in 2015 and became part of the Community Outreach Unit last year.

Cheney says being part of the Suicide Prevention Committee is a way to reach out to all kinds of departments and student groups on campus. “Our goal on campus is to reach out and be part of the students’ lives,” he says. “We want to be approachable and trusting. We get involved. We try to be victim-centered and understand what the students are going through and get them the help they need.

In addition to Cheney, the department’s community outreach dog Tildy can make a difference in tough times for students. Tildy, who has her own Instagram account at @UConnPD_OfficerTildy, accompanies Cheney everywhere he goes, and even attends meetings of the Suicide Prevention Committee.

Sharon Mendes is the assistant director of ACES (the Academic Center for Exploratory Students) and is a long-time member of the Suicide Prevention Committee.

“I once had a first-year student assigned to me and I received a call from her aunt telling me the student had attempted suicide,” says Mendes. “The aunt wanted to meet with me, but I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. It wasn’t long after that I got an email to see if anyone was interested in joining the committee. It must have been a sign.”

Through being part of the committee, Mendes says she has learned about mental health and “how to be understanding in my personal life.

“I feel much more confident and competent to talk about it now,” she says, “and have the ability to empathize and sympathize.”

For a schedule of events during Suicide Prevention Week 2018, go to suicideprevention.uconn.edu/events/ .