Approximately every 11 minutes in the United States, someone dies by suicide. For people aged 15-24, many who are in high school or college, it is the second leading cause of death, shortening thousands of lives every year.

The Daily Nebraskan reached out to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department to better understand its protocols with suicidal or potentially suicidal students.

John Backer, captain of patrol services at UNLPD, said suicidal thoughts do not exist on a continuum and it depends on what that person is feeling at a particular time, which means someone’s mental state can change in a relatively short time frame. 

“Our approach when we try to determine if someone is suicidal or not, it’s more so what services are needed at this point in time, what services are best going to help the student,” Backer said.

Backer said UNLPD’s protocol for handling a suicidal student has not really changed during his time at UNLPD, which includes the past decade, but he has noticed more available resources, such as the 24-hour line at Counseling and Psychological Services.

Anecdotally, Backer said he has seen an increase in the number of calls involving suicidal students in the last five to 10 years at UNL. Since the start of the fall 2021 semester, UNLPD has received 15 mental health investigations, which may include a suicide attempt, and 16 welfare checks, Backer said. 

Welfare checks are in-person check-ins from at least one officer and they are requested by someone else, usually a family member or friend, who is concerned about the student, Backer said. If UNLPD officers are conducting a welfare check and they find that the student’s mental health is suffering, such as from depression, then the officers will work with them and it will be classified as a mental health investigation.

When someone calls UNLPD with concerns about a student being suicidal or potentially suicidal, Backer said officers try to get as much information from the person reporting as they can. This includes questions like, “What led them to believe that?,” “Did the person they are concerned about make any statements?” or “Were there any weapons involved or mentioned?,” according to Backer.

“On every call, we always try to start with the lowest, calmest approach,” Backer said. “It’s not confrontational, it’s assistive in nature, and really our purpose when we first show up is just to learn how the student is doing, what’s been going on lately and what they need from us.”

If a student who is feeling suicidal calls UNLPD, Backer said dispatchers’ first priority is to find out where they are so they can get officers en route and send medical assistance as soon as possible if needed.

During a welfare check, mental health investigation or following a call from a potentially suicidal student, Backer said there are a few procedures UNLPD officers can follow if it is deemed that the student is at risk for suicide or is experiencing suicidal thoughts. Backer said UNLPD officers will try to coordinate with CAPS, especially if that student has a pre-existing relationship with the resource. 

If CAPS is unavailable or if it’s after hours, Backer said some students have been transported to the mental health triage unit at Brian West hospital. Some students are released the same day or later on, but Backer said if they need help getting back to campus, UNLPD officers will also bring them back to campus.

If the student needs medical attention, UNLPD officers will contact or transport them to medical professionals, according to Backer. Police officers are allowed to take someone into custody if they feel that a person is in imminent danger to themselves or others, even before mental health assistance or before mental health board proceedings can happen, Backer said.

“That’s not our ideal approach because that is, in a sense, involuntary custody of that student, of that person,” Backer said. “And in talking with CAPS and talking with other mental health professionals, what’s really most beneficial for the student is if they are an active participant in their wellness and in those steps towards becoming better, so we strive for that if at all possible. But as a last resort, if it is necessary to protect their safety or the safety of others, that is an option.” 

Backer said UNLPD officers usually check in with the student for the following days after a call or mental health investigation. 

“The difficulty for the officers is just knowing that student’s going to be OK,” Backer said. “There’s a sense of personal investment and personal care for this student.”

Backer said officers sometimes feel they are the only resource for that student, especially if their family lives far away or they do not have other people to lean on. The difficulty for them is to ensure they are recommending the student the resources they need. 

“We really do see ourselves as a bridge more than anything for those resources,” Backer said. “I think we do a good job acknowledging that we are a very short-term response for that student at that point in time. We are proud to do it. We’re glad to be there to provide that assistance. We just know we are not the professionals that are in the best situation to get them into a better state long term.”

When a student does die by suicide, Backer said UNLPD’s protocol and approach is student and family centered. It’s a difficult balance between the amount of information that is released to the UNL community versus the privacy and well-being of the family that has just been affected by this tragedy, he said. 

If a student is feeling suicidal, Backer said to call 911 or UNLPD immediately, whether they live on or off campus.

“I have faith in all of our officers to be able to approach that situation for the benefit of the student and handle that appropriately for them,” Backer said.