The early, muted dusk of the cold December evening shrouded a Tiger’s head bowed by a relentless and rootless fatigue. She waited for the bus to take her back to her empty apartment where she planned to end everything. She felt like she had been dying for so long that she was already dead.

As the CAT bus turned onto Cherry Road, a phone call came in.

He called again. The bus got closer.  And again. The bus doors opened. A final ring caught the air so she answered, but her feet were set on a course.

The blonde hair of her friend appeared on the horizon as he sprinted over. His voice said in the phone: “Don’t get on that bus. We have to talk about our plans for tomorrow. You promised.”

The CAT bus departed, leaving her sobbing by the side of the road. It took just one friend to keep her from dying by suicide.

Graphic that has text overlayed that reads 'Tigers Together'That’s the theme of Clemson University’s Tigers Together to Stop Suicide this spring — “It just takes one.” The initiative includes a Creative Inquiry team started and led by professors Heidi Zinzow and Martie Thompson, focusing on suicide prevention on Clemson’s campus. In its third semester of a three-year grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Tigers Together has blazed an exciting trail at Clemson and will be hosting events to raise awareness this spring.

Suicide on college campuses is a serious problem. Nationwide, it’s the second leading cause of death among college students; moreover, 1 in 14 students, or 7 percent, have seriously considered suicide. When you apply those numbers to just Clemson, they get a little scarier. That would mean that of the 6,301 students in on-campus housing, 441 have probably seriously considered suicide.

That’s 441 cheering, achieving and big dreaming Tigers who have probably considered getting on that bus – and some number of whom who have ended everything because they didn’t have even one person to talk to about their pain.

And that would just be students who live on campus. It doesn’t take into account the disproportionate rates associated with vulnerable student communities: veterans; international students; LGBTQ individuals; and certain minority groups.

But there are professors like Zinzow, Thompson and their Creative Inquiry students who want to make sure Clemson is doing everything it can — for every member of the Clemson Family — to prevent suicide. Two of these students are Cayley Balser and Stephanie Jeffirs, psychology majors from Ohio who graduate in May.

A friend’s death by suicide in high school inspired Jeffirs’ passion for the issue. Balser, a former varsity volleyball player, had seen and heard many friends and other athletes struggle with suicide. The problem became close to her heart.

A group of Clemson students and professors sit in a classroom and discuss their suicide prevention project on Clemson's campus.

Professors Martie Thompson and Heidi Zinzow (second and third from right) meet with the students who are part of the Tigers Together suicide prevention project on campus.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“Tigers Together lets people know they’re not alone. It’s a safe way to open dialogue,” Balser said. “Suicide is a pretty taboo topic, especially on college campuses, where people are supposed to have it together.”

Balser has spearheaded Clemson’s inaugural participation in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s “Out of the Darkness” Campus Walk on April 10.

“For some, it’s easier to talk about the campus walk than suicide directly, so the walk could be a good launching point,” Balser said. “Showing bright faces and people who get it will be very positive — a celebration, not a downer.”

The walk is just one part of Tigers Together’s goals to tailor suicide prevention to the Clemson community, raise awareness and create a sustainable program that will continue even once SAMHSA funding runs out.

“All these resources are in hope that students at risk will see warning signs within themselves and go seek help or promote helping people as they recognize those warning signs in others,” Zinzow said.

Get Tigers talking

One of the projects designed just for Clemson is called suicide prevention advocacy training. This training workshop for students, staff and faculty teaches individuals how to talk about suicide, how to respond when someone expresses suicidal feelings or other topics, and how to provide help or resources. Anybody can host a training: organizations including Active Minds, Psychology Club and Active Student Veterans Association have all already done so. Workshops can be requested on the Tigers Together website.

“Data collected from these training workshops have shown that our course significantly increases awareness and noticeably improves an individual’s ability to appropriately respond,” Jeffirs said.

The gatekeeper training is only one component of their overall goal to establish an infrastructure of support at the University.

Clemson psychology students Cayley Balser, left, and Stephanie Jeffirs, work together in a classroom. They are part of a suicide prevention group on Clemson's campus.

Suicide prevention is close to the hearts of both Cayley Balser, left, and Stephanie Jeffirs.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“Something that has been so instrumental to us achieving our goals are the collaborations we’ve had with on campus offices,” Thompson said. These partnerships have been with offices such as Residence Life, Dean of Students Office, Healthy Campus, Redfern Health Center and especially Counseling and Psychological Services.

Other Clemson-specific resources have been developed too, one of which is a partnership with a national crisis textline.

Another is their new website, which provides access to mental health screening tools, information on how to help others and links to local and national resources. Thompson and Zinzow hope that the text crisis line will prove especially beneficial to students who feel safer with anonymous social forms like texting.

Beside the Out of the Darkness Campus Walk, Tigers Together is coordinating a social media campaign called “It Just Takes One,” which features President Clements, who has taken a personal interest in the group’s work.

“One person to save a life. You don’t have to do anything big. One person becomes two becomes 10 and 30 people,” Jeffirs said.

Sustainable Prevention

As their work continues to be successful, Thompson and Zinzow have already begun to look forward to suicide prevention after the grant ends.

“We are institutionalizing pieces of the program, looking to sustain student commitment and maintain what’s happened already,” Zinzow said.

They know that some of the hardest work is yet to come.

“Going forward, it’s important to acknowledge that not all students feel like the Clemson Family resonates with them. So the question becomes, ‘how can we be supportive of each other,’ which means reaching out to isolated students, recognizing their diversity, and connecting them to niche communities they embrace,” Thompson said.